Agencies and Designers Aren’t Thrilled With New York’s Redesigned License Plate Options

Residents can vote on which of the 5 looks will debut in 2020

collage of the five new york state license plate design options
Here are the choices for New York state's next license plate.
New York State Governor's Office

The state of New York is putting the future of its license plate in the hands of its own residents.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently announced his plans to let New Yorkers choose what the state’s next license plate will look like. Online, residents can choose from one of five designs, all of which include the previous plate’s signature dark blue and gold colors. Voting for the new plate closes on Sept. 2., and the winning look will debut in April of next year.

Considering these are the sorts of projects that usually end up on agency doorsteps, Adweek asked agencies, creatives and designers to give us their two cents on the options available. In true New York form, there was no shortage of opinions, most of them not exactly glowing.

Ugh

Sayaka Sugimura, senior designer, Work & Co

New York City is so fortunate to have a rich visual design history, with contributions from icons like Massimo Vignelli (the Subway) and Pentagram (the Parks). I’d argue that our city’s bold typography and timeless communication design is as representative of New York as the most-visited tourist destinations. The fact that our other signage has endured for decades while we are debating new license plate designs suggests it never worked in the first place! As Vignelli said, “If you do it right, it will last forever.”

Plate pick:

It’s probably the best because it’s the most legible. [It] also has less illustration, which can be distracting and quickly feel outdated.

Alexander Rea, partner, AUX

Our current one had a nice visual throwback reference to the ones from the 50s and 60s. I liked the plates from the early aughts with Lady Liberty in the middle, on a field of white. I prefer plain license plates. Vermont, California and Delaware are perfectly simple. Everyone else has way too much smashed into a small space. When you’re driving down the road, maybe at high speed, you’re distracted by trying to figure out what the hell is that little shape. Like when you drive by a U-Haul van at 80mph, and you think: “Oh, that’s why they put extra-terrestrials on there.”

Plate pick: Do I have to choose yet? I’ll hold onto my vintage plate for as long as I can.

Beth Tondreau, principal, BTDnyc

Each design is wan, dull, busy, and not all that readable. I applaud democracy and transparency, but the designs would be more successful if they’d been shepherded by an art director or designer.

Plate pick:

I’d choose this because, of the various mashups, it’s clear and closer to being no-nonsense and functional—with an image that is both recognizable and carries cultural meaning for the state (and the country).

Douglas Davis, Chair, B.F.A. in Communication Design, New York City College of Technology/CUNY

I had to close one eye and squint the other to look at these, so that can’t be good when you’re driving. There are levels of bad taste, and I think we went through all of them. Let this remind you that there are more design decisions than there are visually literate people to make them. Just because you have a tool doesn’t mean you understand the elements and principles behind how to use it. This made me glad I don’t have a car.

Plate pick:

Which one would make me less embarrassed each time I see it is how I’m interpreting the question—and [the best] is the one with the bridge. When you see the choices, there is only one that will not make your car look bad.

Todd Lancaster, CCO, GoDo Discovery Co.

Being from Texas, when I see a car with one of those classic “orangey-yellow” plates in front of me, I immediately know that car is from New York. License plates used to be predominantly one solid, recognizable base color with a complementary color for text. There were [usually] no graphics (Colorado had a simple mountain silhouette with white text on green background). But that’s how I know where you’re from, your simple two-tone plates. These look like fake plates in low-budget TV series.

Plate pick: I wouldn’t choose any of them. They look like someone got a new PC version of Illustrator and clip art book (sorry, New York state designer).

Kalani Fujimori, ecd, Dinner Party

Everything in this city is a form of duct-tape, a temporary fix. This redesign is that, temporary. They’re trying to do too much here. This lacks the tough and simplistic characteristics that make NY, NY.

Plate pick:

In creative, everyone talks about being disruptive; kudos for this person to be thinking “outside of the box.”

Scott Schneider, CCO, Praytell

When the Dutch came over to what is now New York in 1609, they brought with them many things New York still holds dear: bowling, ice skating, doughnuts, etc. They also brought with them and instilled in us the color orange. (Let’s go, Mets!) Starting in 1915, New Yorkers had been able to embrace that deep orange (or some version of it) on their license plates. Yes, there was a period between 1986 – 2010 where it went to white, but then we finally made it back to our ownable orange again. Orange is our aesthetic heritage, and we should stay the course!

Plate pick:

While four of the five new designs do bring in some orange accents, they also are lacking in the boldness that NY is known for. The one with the torch in the center is what would identify as my favorite of this batch. Overall our license plate design should live up to our motto, which was wisely added.

Adhemas Batista, evp, head of design, Deutsch L.A.

The older plates felt more iconic. The new designs feel busy for me with too much unnecessary information. Using visual techniques like watermark makes it feel cheap and hard to read.

Plate pick:

I would pick this one, but I would clear out the background and keep it on yellow. Simple, minimal and iconic.

Richard Hart, CCO, Dear Future

The designs are typographically and compositionally a train-wreck, a classic case of trying to squeeze in elements that just don’t naturally fit. That we are now asked to choose between 5 different iterations of what is essentially a postcard design with numbers on it, is a big step backward. New York is packed to the rafters with world-class graphic designers who could have done a better job in the time it’s taking me to write this sentence. Maybe the city might consider calling one of them?

Plate pick:

None. [If pressed], I’d opt for this one. It sucks fractionally less than the other four.

Chris Breen, CCO, Chemistry Atlanta

Overall they all seem very expected. I understand the use of the Statue of Liberty, but the actual design elements seem very disjointed. The choice of fonts, colors and overall designs seem heavy-handed. I would have loved for them to give the assignment to NYC design/fashion firms to think through. These designs feel a little “all over the place” for something as simple as a license plate design, especially when you throw the excelsior line into the mix.

Plate pick:

I prefer the bridge design. It is the cleanest overall design for sure.

Roger Bova, svp, head of design, Deutsch New York

These are ambitiously bad, which is a shame for such a grand opportunity.  Respect the medium—a metal plate. Just because we can print gradients, multiple colors and dimensional illustrations on a metal plate doesn’t mean we should. New York state is so vast and interesting beyond NYC. It would be great to have options that speak to the Adirondacks and the many lakes of the state, giving New Yorkers a more varied choice.

Plate pick:

It has the most potential to be iconic—I would make the torch smaller and silhouetted while bolding the “New York” name a touch.

We like them

Rebecca Rivera, adjunct assistant professor, New York City College of Technology/CUNY

The best plate designs are strong in terms of form + function. They are clean (not too many elements and plenty of “white space”), timeless, have high readability, and are “on brand” for New York.

Plate pick:

It stands out as the cleanest, most modern design. But the choice of the bridge is not emblematic of New York. I get that it’s the new bridge, but it is not the bridge most associated with the state.

Marc Ferrino, design director, GSD&M

New York has so many wonderful landmarks and such a rich heritage, these designs do an adequate job in showing some of them. I would have loved to have seen one incorporating the beautiful shapes of the Brooklyn Bridge. I can only imagine the committee of government employees killing great designs along the way. I bet you there were so many opinions flying around it made the design team’s head spin.

Plate picks:

I think license plates are a study in simplicity, showing restraint, and being as utilitarian as possible is key.

Just OK

Jason Apaliski, ecd, Pereira O’Dell

All of these choices seem bland in comparison. I also miss “Empire State.” As an outsider, as I live in San Francisco, “Excelsior” means nothing to me.

Plate pick:

The Statue of Liberty flame is iconic, and the rendering style is interesting. The typography of “New York” feels a little more timeless and classic than the generic sans serif of the others. That said, “Excelsior” in all caps and orange leaves something to be desired.

George Garrastegui Jr., assistant professor, New York City College of Technology/CUNY

They seem OK. They all seem like versions of the same idea. I tried not to read up on other opinions, but visually, they all explore the obvious identifying attributes of New York. This newer version has more visual interest than the current yellow version but feels formulaic. I wish they would have asked people for concepts, not just voting. It feels like a marketing way of being “inclusive” without giving people a say in the process.

Plate pick:

It has the most contrast and includes visuals from both New York state and New York City. Is this an update for the sake of updating, or does it serve a purpose beyond the aesthetics? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

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