The eloquent license plate

How does a professor of fine arts look at America's auto license plates? Most of them are graphic disasters, says William Morgan of the University of Louisville, reflecting on a handsome exception he found. NOT long ago I came across a 1913 Indiana license plate in an antique shop. It measured only 41/2 by 7 inches and after 70 years its porcelain enamel finish still looked new. Its strikingly handsome color scheme of white letters on a royal blue background was an excellent example of graphic simplicity -- a modest but nonetheless satisfying aesthetic achievement. It is not surprising that that small number plate was far more legible than most of the mini-billboards that clutter our automotive landscape. It also reminded me of the sad fact that a majority of our auto tags are messy and downright embarrassing graphic disasters -- visual pollutants that are all too indicative of the low level of design awareness in America.

The primary function of a license plate is to display a sequence of letters and numerals for the convenience of law enforcement officers and revenue officials. However, the license plate has assumed a symbolic role: In sort of an ambassadorial capacity, it is a mobile advertisement and a highly visible expression of a state's public image.

Before the federal government standardized license plate dimensions to 6 by 12 inches, some states expressed themselves by making the plate's shape conform to that of the state map. Now, most states conduct civic advertising campaigns with the help of various mottoes, slogans, and pictorial devices. (Canada's Northwest Territories' profile of a bear is the only North American exception to the standard rectangle.)

Until the Bicentennial celebration initiated a veritable orgy of flags, cannons, heroes, stripes, stars, and logos, the common practice had been to dress up tags with nicknames: ``Land of Enchantment'' (New Mexico), ``America's Dairyland'' (Wisconsin), ``Keystone State'' (Pennsylvania), or phrases extolling state virtues: ``Maine Vacationland,'' ``Wild, Wonderful'' (West Virginia), ``Green Mountains'' (Vermont), or devices associated with the state: Mt. Rushmore (South Dakota), a snowcapped mountain range (Colorado), Wyoming's bronco buster. Occasionally, public-service messages or even moral admonishments appear on license plates, as in Ohio's 1974 query ``Seat Belts Fastened?'' or New Hampshire's ``Live Free or Die.''

Unintentionally, some of these mottoes come across as overly self-conscious: ``Garden State'' (New Jersey), or ``Land of Opportunity'' (Arkansas), can have the opposite effect, causing one to wonder if a state offers anything besides ``Famous Potatoes.'' Conversely, clean letters proclaiming just Maryland or Massachusetts say something about a state's self-assurance.

In the past, plates (and hence their color schemes and sometimes their design) were changed every year. But recently there has been a trend toward five-year or even ``permanent'' plates, many with light-colored reflective surfaces. Some of these new reflectorized tags carry scenes behind the numbers, such as Alaska's rearing grizzly or South Carolina's state seal. These scenic backdrops are often quite elaborate, ranging from North Carolina's Wright Brothers plane in flight to Minnesota's lakes and forests, and an Indiana frontier-period farm complete with cornstalks and split-rail fences. Also, maps of the states are reappearing; what used to be a dot or a hyphen separating numbers and letters has become a little state-shaped blob on the current plates of Texas, New Jersey, Ohio, and Oklahoma.

Such colorful developments may be a boon to license plate collectors and to motorists in search of games to amuse bored children on long stretches of Interstate highway. But too often the very purpose of the plate is obscured by all the pictures and unessential verbiage.

As in the case of other utilitarian objects, the most attractive -- and often the most effective -- license plates are the simplest. Thus, while no one would suggest that license plate design, like size, be regulated, we can wish that the states might accept the limitations of license plate design as a challenge. Employing only their state names, and by the use of distinctive colors and attractive typography, license plates could become dignified and eloquent statements once again. 30{et

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