Monday, September 14, 2009

License Plates: Bad Design? Or Worst Design?

People have been spotting evidence of the decline of Western Civilization at least as far back as The Three Stooges. Beginning in the 1970s, disco, punk, rap then hip-hop were decried as the degeneration of music. Today, it's the teabagger protestors who sound the alarm over America's descent into fascism, communism and universal health insurance. My own contribution to this growing body of work is the observation that the decline can be roughly traced in the history of Texas license plates.

The art of license plate design reached its pinnacle in the 1940s with a clean white plate with black numbers. Above the numbers was, simply, the name "TEXAS." Below the numbers was blank. The only decorative touch was a small, tasteful star in the center of the plate. The design was perfect. But good taste can't last forever. Feature creep began in the 1970s, the decade of leisure suits and wide neckties. The star was replaced with a small outline of the familiar shape of Texas. The sesquicentennial year of 1986 saw the introduction of the first slogan below the numbers, the obvious "SESQUICENTENNIAL", soon replaced permanently with "THE LONE STAR STATE". Then a big waving Texas flag was added to the top.

License plate design reached its nadir with the plate containing oil derricks, a cowboy on a horse, the space shuttle, a crescent moon and a landscape silhouette of mountains. It was a design that screamed "designed by committee." I think this excess was deliberate to drive people to buy one of the many specialized plates that began appearing at this time, collegiate plates, military or veteran plates, plates with horned frogs ("Keep Texas Wild"), cartoon dogs and cats ("Animal Friendly") or any of dozens of other designs someone must have said they wanted but later had second thoughts about, as you never see them on cars on the road.

Now, in 2009, yet another new design is appearing on Texas roads. This design was selected by an Internet poll, giving cover to the responsible officials at TxDOT ("Don't blame us, the public likes it"). Thankfully, the space shuttle and oil derricks and cowboy are gone. The silhouette of mountains is still there, although at first glance the blue tint makes the mountains look more like swelling seas. Across the top are swaths of blue and red that look like a kindergartner's crayon scrawls after having gone through the washing machine. If you recently took advantage of the government's "cash for clunkers" program, be warned that when the dealer puts this new license plate on your new car, it's halfway to clunker status itself.

The new design adds a seventh digit to the license number, allowing for billions of unique license plate numbers. That means this design could be with us for a very long time. Bad taste can't last forever, can it?

(Hat tip to Wick Allison.)

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