How to Stink on Purpose: Maryland’s New License Plate

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.

The Great Space Debate: To Single- or Double-Space After a Period

A while back, I declared my allegiance to the serial comma, and I am ready to take another stand.

I believe that double-spacing after a period at the end of a sentence is outdated, clunky, and typographically unsound. (While I’m at it, I also believe that college football’s postseason format is fraudulent, the designated hitter rule is silly, Conan O’Brien was treated unfairly, and Arrested Development was taken off the air way too soon.)

This is not exactly a cutting-edge opinion, but there are still plenty of people out there using the antiquated post-period double space. This is fine if you’re writing e-mails or crafting ransom notes from magazine clippings, but if you’re creating professional-quality printed materials, the single space is the way to go.

monospace-1The double space after periods was a standard in the days of typewriters, which used monospaced typefaces in which each letter or grammatical mark, whether a capital M or an apostrophe, is given the same amount of space. The typeface Courier, pictured here with ugly, gaping double-space holes after the periods, mimics a typewriter and is an example of a monospaced typeface. (Note the way the characters line up in columns, delineated here with pinstripes, because of the monospacing.) The thinking at the time was that the double space helped provide a visual break between sentences, but when the computer came along and allowed for more subtle variations in spacing, the double space became obsolete.

proportional-1Since the advent of the computer, most typefaces are proportional, allotting the appropriate amount of space for each typographic character, including spaces after periods. See the typeface Minion, set with elegant, contemporary single spaces, in the example here.

These days, most style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style and Associated Press, call for the single space. Another proponent of the single space is Robin Williams (the not-funny female graphic designer and author, not the not-funny male actor), who has written several books on technology and graphic design, such as The Mac is Not a Typewriter, The PC is Not a Typewriter, and The Non-Designer’s Design Book.

You’ll notice that nearly all professionally designed printed materials (books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) utilize the single space. The double space after a period looks especially silly if you are using justified type, which already skews word- and letterspacing to force lines of text into a certain amount of space.

The proponents of two spaces after a period seem to harp on the same point: I was taught that way. Many are trying to stop but can’t. Others refuse to hear reason, desperately clinging to their Sholes & Glidden typewriter in one hand, waving the jagged end of a broken moonshine bottle at you with the other.

In the end, there is technically no right or wrong when it comes to spacing after periods, unless you are obligated to follow one of the many style guides out there that call for the single space. But then again, there’s technically no right or wrong when it comes to wearing tapered jeans and paisley shirts, and people do that, too.