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Ken Carbone and Pals Reimagine State License Plates

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Inmate Sefan Bucher’s Sanity California Plate Design

Against the Grain readers have met Ken Carbone before: we featured a piece on the outspoken president of Carbone Smolan Agency (CSA) during coverage of the HOW Conference. More, you’ve undoubtedly seen his handiwork through CSA, including but not limited to The Louvre, Tiffany & Co. and The High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Ken writes a popular design blog for Fast Company. There, he considers issues related to design and its role in informing global trends. In a recent post, he scratched the surface at a subject we found endlessly interesting: the state of America’s license plates.

“I doubt that any car owner doesn’t have some emotional attachment to their car unless, of course, it’s a lemon,” says Ken. “Then the state government comes along and demands that we slap an annoying piece of metal to the bumper. It’s a fundamental design problem that hasn’t been seriously addressed in decades.”


Carbone Smolan’s Take on NY’s Plate

As part of his Fast Company piece, Ken invited designers from around the country to join him in re-imagining what these standard-issues could look like. On the roster, a bilingual plate for Texas designed by Craig Minor; a beautiful one-size-fits-all plate for Illinois courtesy Bart Crosby; and a cheeky California plate from Stefan Bucher that includes the driver’s political leaning and source of moral superiority.

Ken’s own design for New York is sleek, with numbers punched through a recycled, raw plate, and it comes from a place or real, timely inspiration: the Empire State recently issued a new plate design. “[The new plate] is kind of retro looking but is a definite improvement over the previous design,” Ken notes.

With an update for New York, it begs the question, who else could use some help out there, and what states are issuing great plates?


Bart Crosby’s One Size Fits All for the IL

“In my opinion, simple is better when it comes to license plate design,” Ken told us. Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Delaware specifically are taking this “less is more” approach.  In fact, in his Fast Company piece Ken offers highest honors to Connecticut’s “acceptable,” plate; as compared to Florida’s “unfortunate” designation and Utah’s “So Bad It’s Good” design, complete with two state mottos. “The only things missing,” Ken writes in the article, “are images of the Utah Jazz, Sundance Film Festival and the Great Salt Lake.”

Ken says that things are better abroad, though nominally so. “License plates are marginally better in the EU. You still have the problem that it’s a ‘sign’ that is in no way integrated with the car’s design, so it will always stick out like a sore thumb. However, the long and narrow proportion is better.”

Technology offers new ways of looking at plate integration in car design, from something as simple as the mechanisms behind EZ-Pass cards for tolls. A solution that eliminates the plate and uses a direct application of the alpha-numeric code could be worth exploring, Ken suggests.


Craig Minor’s Bilingual TX Plate

We asked Ken about other issues of signage in the public sphere, and both his pet-peeves ended up being transportation-related. “In Manhattan, ‘No Parking’ signs are notoriously unclear. I’m convinced that this is intentional in an attempt to increase revenue to the city by using information ‘sleight of hand’ to ticket drivers. Also, I have two ugly stickers on the lower left corner of my windshield–registration and inspection–that I would love to lose.”

Outside of car culture, Ken notes that the U.S. Passport is a notorious design offender. “Don’t get me started.”

Importantly, Ken noted that design should never trump the basic utility of plates, or for that matter, any other public service. “A police car should look like a symbol of public service and not tricked out like a promotional prop for a pop star. The design should be direct and clear and communicate comfort for those in need while looking sufficiently menacing for those breaking the law.”

“The best civic design,” Ken concludes, “is that which truly solves a problem and is helpful to the public.”

ny_new 2

This new uninspiring tag for NY State inspired the entire exercise

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