Automobile license plates are a design viewed by almost every American countless times a day. Given such visual prominence, you would think they would warrant a higher level of design. Most plates aren't terribly interesting. They often focus on a particular geographic feature, slogan, or important moment in history; with varying degrees of success. Idaho proudly proclaims, "Famous Potatoes" as if that were the most important thing to ever come out of the state...maybe it is. New Mexico and Arizona have bright, colorful plates that represent the beauty of both the nature and the culture found in those states. At first glance these plates can seem beautiful. But then you realize not every color car works well with bright turquoise. And this is the core of the problem with the design of the current license plates; they have to be adaptable. The plates must remain simple and neutral, since they will be found on red, black, blue, yellow, and green cars.
The current design for California, Virginia, and Massachusetts are examples of plates that are simple enough to look appropriate on any car. However, they aren't overly inspiring designs. Of the current plates, Delaware's may be my favorite. Its simple font has a lot of character that I imagine will last and look fresh for a long time. Above the numbers it simply reads, "The First State," a distinction that actually might be worth boasting about. Of course, it is rendered in dark blue and yellow, so point reduction for lack of color neutrality.
I was excited to hear about the State Plates Project, where graphic designer Jonathan Lawrence has tasked designers around the country with redesigning a plate of their choice. However, I came away feeling these new designs had many of the same issues as the current plates. While certainly beautiful, many of these designs are still complicated, feature many different colors, and are at times difficult to read (looking at you Maryland!).
All homerism to my native state aside, I find the design for New York to be the most successful in the State Plates Project. It's simple black-and-white design with a small red apple manages to be bold and elegant, but also full of life and character. No matter the make, model, or color of your car, this license plate would fit in well. Colorado came in a close second with its minimal design, but I gave it a point reduction for not being my home state...so I guess the homer in me won out.
Head on over to the State Plates Project website to see all of the new designs.