Now that Illinois’ new license plates have started appearing on cars and other vehicles, I’d like to revise an opinion from last fall, when I wrote that the plates’ design was busy and banal.
That was too kind.
In real life, with a long line of letters and numbers obscuring Abraham Lincoln’s face and all the other stuff that got thrown into this “everything but the kitchen sink” design, the new plates are hopelessly cluttered, not always easy to read, and a major lost chance to project a better image for a state that’s synonymous with political dysfunction.
You may ask: “Why is the architecture critic devoting a second column to the design of a piece of metal that measures 6 inches by 12 inches?”
Here’s why: Beyond its obvious role of identifying a vehicle and helping cops catch bad guys, a license plate should express a state’s identity and encourage outsiders to visit the state or do business there. Think of it as a mini-billboard funded by your tax dollars.
The best state plates—Colorado’s, with its jagged snow-capped peaks arrayed against a green backdrop; New Mexico’s, with its orange Native American sun symbol displayed on a field of yellow; and South Carolina’s, with its blue palmetto tree and crescent—seize this opportunity and make artful statements on their tiny canvases.
They’re easy to read. They’re simple but distinctive. And they’re evocative, connecting plate and place.
Measured by this standard, the new, real-life Illinois plate is a mess, even worse than the demonstration version that Secretary of State Jesse White unveiled in November.
In case you’ve forgotten, the demo version shoved Lincoln from his longstanding spot at the center of the plate to the far left side of the plate, with only the left half of his bearded face visible. The half face made it look like Honest Abe had grown sick of Springfield’s endless political gridlock and was slinking over the border—perhaps to Kentucky, where he was born, or to Indiana, where he spent much of his youth.
Bad as it was, the Half Abe look at least promised to be legible. Because it only displayed the letters and numbers “NEW 1” (cute), you could see all the elements unfurled across the background, from the Willis Tower on the left to the State Capitol on the right. But that’s not so when clusters of two letters and five numbers are overlaid over the same backdrop, as they are in many of the new plates.
On the plate’s far left side, the dark red of the first letter bleeds into the dark gray of Lincoln’s coat. Not exactly easy to read. I’ll get to the state trooper angle shortly.
The seven figure combination obscures everything but the tops of the Willis Tower and the State Capitol. Yet the arrangement allows a non-descript high-rise to the right of Willis to stand out. This high-rise could be anywhere. It does nothing to suggest the architectural greatness of Chicago. Talk about a lack of design foresight.
Depending on the configuration of letters and numbers, an old-fashioned windmill can be seen at the center of the plate. Huh? The bottom of the plate still says “Land of Lincoln,” but the windmill at center stage seems to say we are “Land of Windmill.” Hierarchy matters. You put the most important thing in the center, not on the fringe.
Accordingly, it would have been better to keep Abe where he belongs—in the center and full-faced. The plate being replaced may be a visual bore, but at least it conveys a clear, unifying message and isn’t at war with itself.
At stores and in graphic design, you get what you pay for. The plate’s design is by staff artists at the secretary of state’s office, who were handed the job in a short-sighted attempt to cut costs. The outcome, visible on 174,000 new plates issued so far, is anathema to professional graphic designers like Tom Janiszewski of northwest suburban Woodstock.
“It drives me nuts,” he emailed, “and as a car enthusiast who pays extra for vanity plates, I want my plate to be legible. I should think the police would agree.”
Actually, they don’t, at least not yet. A spokesman for the Illinois State Police declined to comment on the design. Dave Druker, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the office ran the design by a variety of law enforcement agencies and “nobody had a problem in terms of identifying the plate. Based on their comfort level, we went ahead.”
But tweaks are possible. “We have had some people taking issue with the far left” of the plate, where the dark red letters bleed into Lincoln’s dark coat, Druker said. “We are going to look at that.”
That’s good, even if it may be too little too late. An estimated 9 million sets of the new plates will be distributed over the next decade. The gradual roll-out, which is being done to save fund, will cost about $5 million a year, replacing plates that lost reflectivity or rusted.
That money could—and should—have been better spent.