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New Illinois plates OK, but could be better, designers say

Secretary of State Jesse White displays Illinois' new and old license plates.

State officials say that they're making changes to Illinois' newly designed license plates to make them easier to read. | Sun-Times file photo

Not a masterpiece, but not a mess. That is the critique of the newly redesigned Illinois license plates, unveiled last week by Secretary of State Jesse White.

Collectors and graphic designers interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times agree that the new plates are considered an improvement over the plate design that has been showcased on Illinois cars and trucks since 2001, but several say Illinois could have used the 8-inch by 12-inch canvas better.

Michael Wiener, a former president of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association and owner of some 200,000 plates, said the new Illinois plate is one of the better-looking offerings across the United States.

The new plates show a half-image of Abraham Lincoln’s face on the left, superimposed over a silhouette of the Chicago skyline that fades from left to right into the outline of a windmill and the Capitol dome in Springfield. The redesigned plates will be sent to Illinois vehicle owners starting in January.

“The old plate, you had Lincoln’s face in the middle, getting walked on by letters and numerals, and now you have Lincoln’s face out of harm’s way on the left,” Wiener said. “I never liked the old Illinois plate.”

Graphic designer Mike McQuade wasn’t impressed with either version. McQuade took a stab at designing an Illinois plate two years ago as part of the State Plates Project, a volunteer effort by designers to reimagine plates for all 50 states.

Graphic designer Mike McQuade designed this retro-style Illinois license plate for a project to re-imagine license plates in all 50 states. | State Plates Project

Graphic designer Mike McQuade designed this retro-style Illinois license plate for a project to re-imagine license plates in all 50 states. | State Plates Project

“My first impression is that this isn’t an improvement at all,” said McQuade, who lived in the West Loop when he designed a utilitarian-look Illinois plate that harkened back to the plates the state used in the 1930s.

“There are more elements now. I think it’s always best to edit down,” he said. “I don’t really understand why it needs a skyline and a Lincoln, and the gradient doesn’t do much for it.”

The new design was created by staff in the Secretary of State’s office, spokesman Dave Druker said last week, with a primary focus on making sure the digits and numbers on each plate were legible at a distance by law enforcement officers.

The old plates featured “Illinois” in blue cursive script across the top and had red numerals and digits, which often obscured Lincoln’s face in pale blue, over blue shading with the motto “Land of Lincoln” across the bottom. The state also offers about 100 different personalized options, with designs that celebrate everything from the Bears and Cubs to the Illinois & Michigan Canal.

License plates have become an increasingly controversial space for art in the decades since the 1970s, when plate design first began to stray from basic two-color digits and mottos.

Oklahoma’s new plate, featuring a stylized silhouette of the state bird, has gotten mixed reviews from the state’s motorists.

Nebraska’s new plate, featuring an image of a seed-tossing man called “The Sower” was mocked on a recent episode of “Saturday Night Live,” marking the second time in two tries that the state has been the butt of license plate jokes. The last attempt to reboot Nebraska’s tags was hijacked by a humor website, which directed readers across the country to sabotage an online poll to pick a new design by voting for the blandest option.

“It can be a very difficult process, and I don’t think the people in charge put a lot of thought into it,” Wiener said.

Illinois’ new plate is likely to be on display for some time. The previous design was in circulation for more than 15 years, and the version before that — “Illinois” in blue, printed across the top of the plate over a band of blue and darker blue on a white plate — was used for a decade.

“We think it’s a fine-looking plate,” Druker said.