Design is Not a Beauty Contest

I recently got a new car and the whole process went surprisingly smooth. The dealership handled all of the Georgia tag & plate information and very quickly I was on my way in the new ride. The dealership was so accommodating that I figured all would occur without a hitch. I’d drive away in my beautiful “new to me” car, and I’d be looking great. After three weeks of driving around with a temporary tag, this arrived in the mail…

Ugh! I have been in fear of getting the ‘peachy license plate’ since it came out in 2011. I remember telling myself that I would not be the person to have this on my car — I would request the white one at the DMV and all would be well. But now here I am, with the peachy license plate. Curious to know what other people thought about the peachy plate, I posted it on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook. 49 comments later I saw I wasn’t alone. About 90% of the comments were negative pertaining to the design. One person mentioned this was the winner of a license plate design contest. This won a design contest? Intrigued, I began to do some research…

Turns out in 2011 the Department of Revenue introduced a Georgia License Plate Design Contest to the public. The goal of this competition was to highlight artists and create a fresh design that best represents the state of Georgia. So yes, the public did choose this exact design. While the public votes may be in conflict with the negative comments I received on social media, those comments make sense to me. When the random public voted, it was through their lens of design. They chose the license plate that seemed the most designed to them. Rarely will the general pubic choose a simple option in a design contest. Many will think, “that isn’t designed enough to win!” All the while forgetting that this isn’t a movie poster, or a wall mural, or a flyer for the North Georgia State Fair — it’s a license plate.

Rather than just allowing artists a chance to put their work on the back of every car in the state a better option would be to develop a strategy, set objectives, then engage a team to design the plate. Design is not simply beauty. Function must be a component. It seems the Georgia Department of Revenue missed that. They needed a team to draw the lines. Drawing the lines doesn’t limit creativity — it provides an important ‘sandbox’ in which to play — a sandbox that doesn’t seem was a part of the Georgia plate design criteria.

When the Georgia voters saw these designs they picked the prettiest icon on a website and went to lunch — it stopped there for them. There was no measurement criteria beyond asking, “what is your preference?” For a state with 9.92 million people, “what is your preference” can be a prescription for one peachy disaster.

When designing for the masses, simplicity often wins out. Craig Ward says, “Bad typography is everywhere. Good typography is invisible.” And so it is with this. A good license plate design would communicate its purpose with great typography and a nod to the state’s characteristics. It would be distinctive in subtle ways. It would be simple and representative of our great state. The design should lean toward being invisible rather than being noticed — as it does so today. Designers are responsible to deliver a right solution vs. meet a preference. The new Georgia license plate is preference, not purpose. Georgia needs a license plate that fulfills analytical requirements — no more, no less.

In my research I found Georgia introduces a new license plate every 5 years. If the Georgia Department of Revenue introduces another design contest, let’s consider simplicity, Georgians. And in the meantime, let’s represent our state well by choosing the ‘plain white’ option at the DMV.

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