I love license plates. I love that bureaucrats have to get together and decide on a simple look and a few words to sum up an entire state. Imagine if you were designing a museum exhibit or trailside panel and had the same constraints—three or four words and a simple image—that are imposed on license plate designers.
Some states’ plates, like Colorado’s iconic mountains or Hawaii’s rainbow with the legend “Aloha State,” are simple and successful in my opinion.
In some states, it seems like they couldn’t make a decision and went with two messages. I imagine the argument in Idaho between the “Famous Potatoes” and the “Scenic Idaho” factions must have sounded like a “Tastes great!” vs. “Less filling!” debate. I also think that the “Famous Potatoes” people won the argument and some rogue “Scenic Idaho” proponent snuck the word “Scenic” in at the last second after all of the “Famous Potatoes” people had gone home for the night.
And in my native state of Pennsylvania, the “We give up!” state, we went with no message or image at all, just the name of our state and the state website. (We could have least gone with the state highway commission’s official motto: “Construction Ahead: Expect Delays.”)
The reason I bring this up is that Maryland just released a new standard-issue license plate, and it has not been well received. And when I say it has not been well received, what I mean is that it looks like the Maryland governor gave his six-year-old kid a lesson in Microsoft Publisher and how to access clip-art from the CD that came with the printer he bought in 1993 and set him to work.
I understand that graphic designers who change something that people have grown accustomed to often meet with resistance, so I was skeptical when I heard the negative reviews—until I saw the plates.
The new plates, created by the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 with a depiction of Fort McHenry and the “bombs bursting in air” referenced in Francis Scott Key’s 1814 Star-Spangled Banner poem. The problem is that without the legend “War of 1812” included in the design, you’d think that the plates commemorate a Fourth of July celebration at the IKEA just off I-95. Eighty-six percent of the people who responded to an informal survey in The Washington Post prefer the old plates. (The article says, “Eight percent thought the new plate was beautiful.”) Letters to the editor in The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post ripped the plates.
Bill Pencek, director of the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, responded to the criticism by saying:
We looked at the poll. It’s a great country. Everybody is entitled to their opinion.
So, at first, this seems cut and dry. A bunch of bureaucrats tried to cram too much content at too detailed a level into a medium that would not support it and the project failed. But there’s more! I am proud to present the first-ever IBD License Plate Conspiracy Theory. It seems that the commission knew the design was bad and that they did it on purpose.
Since the plates are standard issue, there is no extra fee for them. However, Maryland offers two other license plates: one with an image of a heron and one with a farm. The extra fees for these plates support the Chesapeake Bay Trust and the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation, respectively. Bill Pencek, quoted in The Washington Post, says:
We didn’t want to compete with the other background plates. There was an intention to be beautiful, but not more beautiful than the bay plate or the farm plate.
This means that some designer was handed a project and told, “Do something not as good as these two other things.” Hence the warehouse and the starbursts.
Finally, my favorite license plate-related anecdote involves New Hampshire’s famous “Live Free or Die” motto. In 1977, a motorist named George Maynard covered the words “or Die” because they conflicted with his religious beliefs. The state of New Hampshire, ironically forgetting the sense of their state motto, prosecuted Maynard for violating a state law that prohibits altering license plates. Maynard was convicted, but the case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where the ruling was overturned.
I would love to see what interpreters came up with if they were charged with the task of developing license plates for their sites. And since Shea and I will be conducting a couple training sessions in the next few weeks and we are always looking for ways to keep the class busy while we get coffee and talk about baseball, I may have just had an idea.