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.


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 [It] also has less illustration, which can be distracting and quickly feel outdated.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:

@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.
@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.