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Thursday, March 30, 2017 12:22 am

Projecting a better image

The new Illinois license plate design stinks


At first I assumed that Jesse White was trying to goose sales of specialty plates to top off his budget. Why else would an Illinois Secretary of State oblige the drivers of his state to adorn their cars with the new standard State of Illinois passenger car license plate that looks as if it was designed by the Indiana Office of Tourism Development?

The SoS is having to replace millions of the old Illinois “baseplates” thanks to bungled manufacture, and for reasons unknown decided that new plates merited a new plate design. The new one still features Lincoln, as did the old one, only now he appears in the corner of the plate rather than the center, peeking around the corner of a doorway, as if checking out the room before deciding whether to come in. Behind him, an array of simplified icons in white like knickknacks on a shelf – Statehouse dome, skyscraper – is outlined against a pale blue sky. The colors are like the old one too. Overall, it looks like the offspring of the mother of the previous plate by a homelier father.

Blair Kamin, architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune, calls the design “a mess,” “a major lost chance to project a better image.” The most easily discerned image is an old farm windmill, which is about as common in today’s Illinois countryside as a yurt. Wind turbines would suggest a more forward-looking Illinois, but they don’t say “rural” like a windmill, and sayin’ rural is something an Illinois politico is obliged to do.

Kamin adds, “A license plate should express a state’s identity and encourage outsiders to visit the state or do business there. Think of it as a mini-billboard funded by your tax dollars.” And what message does this one convey? It fails to stir the patriot or excite the romantic. It lacks animation, verve, color. When out-of-staters see one, they will say, “That’s a state that’s tired. That’s a state that doesn’t care. That’s a state that does his grocery shopping in his pajamas.”

Kamin thinks that Colorado, New Mexico and South Carolina do better, and they are indeed miles better than Illinois’, but I prefer California’s “Whale Tail” specialty plate or Montana’s specialty agriculture plate. Or a plate I once carried proudly on my own car, that of Oregon. Oregon’s plate, which debuted in 1992, shows Cascade mountain peaks in silhouette, wreathed in snow behind a Douglas fir. The colors (green, white, lavender and blue) are bright, the iconography distinct and easily comprehended. It’s gorgeous, and quintessentially Oregon.

Maybe we should take that plate and simply put Illinois’ name on it. Pedants will point out that Illinois has no mountain range (unless you count piles of unpaid bills) and no majestic fir trees. But what is the purpose of a billboard if not to mislead to entice? Every morning when you go out to the car and catch a glimpse of that scene out of the corner of your eye, your heart will rise. Trust me. It really will.

Work of such quality is not beyond Illinois. The Illinois Route 66 specialty plate (“Where the Road Begins”) is good. SoS staff also designed (with the folks at Natural Resources) the specialty “environmental” plate that features a northern cardinal perched (somewhat precariously, I would think) on big bluestem grass. It has everything the new plate does not – color and a sharply defined central image that screams “Illinois.” That plate ought to be the Illinois baseplate, but the cardinal unfortunately also screams Indiana and Kentucky and the four other states that honor it as their official bird.

Maybe it’s time to go back to something simpler, something more bulletin board than billboard. Plates used to comprise only numerals (later letters) on a solid ground with maybe the state slogan and a year date. That’s what California has done. The most popular specialty license plate in that state, introduced in 2015, is the “California 1960s Legacy” plate, whose yellow-on-black recalls plates used in that state’s glory years from 1963 to 1969.

Until 1978, new color combinations were issued each year in Illinois, which made it easy for cops to identify an expired plate at a glance. These colors ranged the palette, every one but pink, (I think) which is why so many garage walls were decorated with mosaics of the outdated ones. In some years the colors were those of a college or company of note; John Deere’s green and yellow was picked for 1963, for example, to honor the company’s 125th anniversary. The last time that was done was 1979, to honor the founding of Illinois College. A more appropriate scheme for a permanent plate would be the green-and-gold of a ripening Illinois corn field, or the orange and navy blue of the flagship university. Or maybe most apt of all, red on white, symbolizing red ink on an accounting ledger.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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