Graphic design teachers aren’t impressed with RI’s license plate choices

“They’re incredibly safe, incredibly conservative,” said John Caserta, an associate professor who teaches graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design. “Which makes me want to ask about the process. Who reduces them? There is definitely a fear of change, but I would say it’s all really conservative and really similar.

“If I had given my students this task and made them follow the criteria set by the DMV, I would have had them redo the designs,” said Karyn Jimenez-Elliott, associate professor of graphic design at Johnson University & Wales. “Because they don’t follow the criteria of what the client requested.”

When asked to identify her favorite of the five, Nikki Juen, assistant professor of graphic design at Roger Williams University, paused for a few seconds.

“Hmm,” she finally said. “At Tyler Smith.

Smith is the creator of the “Wave” plate, which was unveiled in 1996 and has been on Rhode Island cars ever since. Keeping the 26-year-old ‘Wave’ plate isn’t one of the five options, of course, but Juen didn’t feel like there was a standout choice among the five – although she could see one. some merit in each of them. Had she submitted a design, she might have opted for one recognizing the state’s indigenous peoples.

One of five finalists in the competition to design major state license plates.Rhode Island DMV

But that’s the problem: the state didn’t pay any graphic designers to help choose a new plate. Instead, an internal group of DMV and McKee bureau officials — but not, say, a paid graphic design consultant — narrowed down from the list of 940 submissions the top five options. Then, on Monday, they opened it to the public to vote.

That kind of process, Juen said, is how you get Boaty McBoatface. It might be a funny name for a British research vessel. But people might not be so excited about Platey McPlateface.

“They wouldn’t give their legal decisions to the Rhode Islanders, and then out of 900 submissions, they would decide what legal action to take,” Juen said. “Or, ‘I have a broken leg. I’ll see if people can tell me how to fix it. It just doesn’t make much sense.

The graphic design experts interviewed for this story each had criticisms of the individual plates themselves – typography issues, similarities to other states (Pennsylvania or New Jersey), too many images crammed into a small canvas, or just plain. They didn’t seem to match Rhode Island’s bold character. While the state said it wanted to get away from the “wave,” two of them still had waves. The choices seemed to suggest an aversion to risk and change.

“The Division of Motor Vehicles would like to thank all participants who submitted all 940 models for review,” Paul Grimaldi, spokesman for the DMV’s parent agency, the Department of Revenue, said in an email. “We urge people to keep in mind that the five selected designs were submitted by their fellow Rhode Islanders. We appreciate people having different opinions and preferences and encourage people to vote for their favorite.

Some Rhode Islanders would prefer not to change at all. The state has a law on the books calling for new license plates every 10 years. And the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, while recommending that states reissue the plates every 10 years, does not recommend that they actually be redesigned. In other words, under these guidelines, they could just be a new, clean, easier-to-see version of the same 10-year-old battered plate.

So why not keep the “Wave”? Supporters say swapping the design from time to time will help identify which cars are on the road without the proper registration, inspection or insurance, which will make everyone safer and help generate more of income.

But why is the change even necessary when Rhode Island already had the iconic “Wave”? Morris + De Luzio partner Jim De Luizo compared it to the iconic “I Love NY” graphic.

“For officials to want to change this is, to put it politely, short-sighted — to put it bluntly, just plain stupid,” De Luizo said.

The plates each had their good points too, some experts said. And Caserta pointed out that people often react angrily to redesigns, whether it’s a new newspaper layout or a Facebook interface. Then people get used to it.

The larger point is not to pick on graphic design enthusiasts who have decided to enter a contest that won’t actually involve making money even if they win. Instead, the designers challenged the state’s selection process: the state would have been better off hiring pros somewhere along the way, even if it still retained the public voting elements.

One of five finalists in the competition to design major state license plates.Rhode Island DMV

Jimenez-Elliott, for her part, submitted her own design doing what she thought the DMV wanted – high contrast, something that broke from the “Wave” – ​​but it didn’t make the final cut.

“I know I was part of the contest, but after really thinking things through, I think there was some fault in it being a contest at all,” Jimenez-Elliott said. “Graphic design is a profession, and just as I tell my students when they apply for internships, their time and skills should be valued and they should be compensated.”

Caserta, the RISD professor, worked with students to craft what he calls a treatise against design competitions, titled simply “Against Competitions”. Some people who design for a living see competitions as an attack on them. States generally don’t use contests for murals, street signs or parks, Caserta said.

“Whether it’s a state emblem, a movie, or a mural, it takes experience and knowledge to find the next big hit,” Caserta said.

Of course, there’s a story in Rhode Island of Rhode Islanders hating the way the state advertises itself, functioning as a slight modification of the state’s motto: No. The “Cooler & Warmer” slogan and logo cost the state $500,000 in 2016. It just so happens it was designed by the same person who made I Love NY. It was a complete fiasco.

Six years later, signs of dissatisfaction with the new license plate design began to appear rapidly. During a State House press conference on Monday unveiling the five picks, WPRO’s Steve Klamkin asked DMV administrator Walter R. “Bud” Craddock about the very early reception on social media.

“The initial response is from a few people,” Craddock said. “Let’s see what the majority of the state says.”

And for people who love the possibility of change, there’s good news: By the end of the day Thursday, people had submitted 61,294 votes online by selecting one of five plates.


Brian Amaral can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.

Milton S. Rodgers