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BROWN: Firm urges new license plates to replace ‘ugly, illegible mess’

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White displays state's old and new license plates last year. File Photo. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

Here’s something to chew on while you’re driving over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for that Thanksgiving meal.

A small west suburban marketing agency declared this week that Illinois has the nation’s single worst license plate.

Employees at Wheaton-based Ivor Andrew say the cluttered new Illinois plate design is even worse than Ohio’s word jumble license plate or Nebraska’s seed-sowing man — which features an illustration that has dirty-minded Cornhuskers wondering exactly what kind of seed he’s sowing.

The marketeers’ criticisms echo the complaints directed at the Illinois plate ever since Secretary of State Jesse White unveiled the new design a year ago this month.

They don’t like how the new plate cuts Abraham Lincoln’s face in half. They don’t like the typography, which they say is difficult to read. They don’t like combining the half-Lincoln with silhouetted skylines of Chicago and Springfield, plus an old-fashioned windmill and barn.


The overall effect, they say, “reeks of design by committee.”

“There were too many cooks in the kitchen who added too many ingredients, and the result is an ugly, illegible mess,” the company declared.

Rather than just howl at the moon, though, as so many others have done, the folks at Ivor Andrew are offering up eight alternative designs of their own.

The project was the brainchild of Doug Carter, the company’s creative director, who said he turned his team loose for a day to show that design professionals “can do better than this in a couple of hours.”

Whether they’ve accomplished that will be in the eye of the beholder. I like some of the company’s designs. Others not so much.


Carter said he was compelled to do something about the license plate design because: “I like cars, and I think good designing should be everywhere.”

The new plates are being phased in to replace the old state plates, which lose reflectivity and become rusty over time.

The secretary of state started this year by replacing passenger plates manufactured in 2000 and 2001. Next year, license plates manufactured in 2002 and 2003 will be swapped out.

Despite the criticism, the new plates are not going away.

“We like our plate,” said Secretary of State spokesman Dave Druker, noting the state is committed to the new design until 2027.

The agency did make some minor tweaks in April, darkening the lettering while lightening the image of Lincoln to make the plate number easier to read.

Druker said the priority all along was to make the plate legible for law enforcement.

To save money, the design work was performed in-house by graphic artists in the secretary of state’s communications department, he said.

Carter said he’s not blaming any individual artist responsible for the design. Instead, he blames what he suspects was a bureaucratic process that tried to combine too many suggestions to make everyone happy.

I agree the new Illinois plate is lame, but really don’t care. There’s only so many things a guy can get worked up over.

Until I considered writing this column, I couldn’t even have told you what the old license plates on my car look like. (Hint: ghostlike image of Lincoln in center background.)

Some of Carter’s license plate suggestions are also problematic.

I told him I liked his “Tree of Life” design, which is a nod to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style.

But Carter admitted that design wouldn’t work because it doesn’t leave enough room for a seven-digit license plate number.

He seemed to like his Centennial Flag design with 21 stars — one large and 20 small — in recognition of Illinois being the 21st state.

But I told him nobody knows or cares that Illinois was the 21st state, and that the one large star made me think of Texas, the Lone Star State.

Maybe we’ll have to form a committee.