Contemplating Design… One State at A Time
A lover of vintage design and typography, Jonathan Lawrence had noticed, over the years, a decline in license plate design. He’d asked himself before why they weren’t designed in a way that was pleasing. Why sometimes they didn’t seem to be considered at all.
But the final straw came in the mail. In the form of new license plates for his car. His description, “It’s the worst thing in the world. It’s this crazy peach farm with a sunset, peach state script that’s pushing Georgia out of the way, and all this craziness happening behind the important information.”
That irritation provided the impetus for his effort to redesign every state plate in the US. “With the older plates, there’s a simplification of order, of hierarchy, of consideration that I feel has gradually gotten lost. I wanted to bring a little bit of that back.”
Quickly realizing the enormity of the project, Jonathan reached out to his designer friends and colleagues and before he knew it, more than half the 50 states, that would eventually comprise the State Plates Project had been spoken for; after he posted on social media, the rest were snapped up. Each designer, either born in the state or having adopted it as home, was passionate about the location, Jonathan’s project, and design.
Jonathan sent each of them a template and a design brief.
The union of function and beauty
Not wanting to get too prescriptive, Jonathan’s creative direction was fairly simple: “Bring back the union of functionality and design in a way that the plates can be beautiful, but also make sense and serve a need, then wrap that all up in a package that feels like the state.”
Since he wanted the focus to remain on applying a design approach, he asked the designers not to get too bogged down in the specifics of plate design (for instance, although it’s a requirement in some states, he didn’t insist on the redesign of the registration stickers), but to focus instead on the hierarchy of the primary content: the size and placement of the tag numbers and letters, the name of the state, and the message related to the region.
Originally from Florida, he’d gone back-and-forth about which state he wanted to design. He ultimately chose Georgia so he could finish what compelled the project. For him, simplification was key: “As designers, we have a responsibility to design but somewhere along the line, whether it’s a marketing decision or something else, things get over-analyzed (as an example, URLs—state.pa.us, myflorida.com, georgia.gov—on license plates). It’s like everything has to be everything. And really, we just need license plates to be license plates.”
Like anything that looks simple after it’s done, the small space, the historical context, and the design parameters made it a challenge. Although he’d been living in the state almost four years, he began researching prior plate designs.
One of the first things he noticed was that since the 1940s, a peach had been the symbolic center of the design. So he knew it had to stay. While for many states the plates have always been two specific colors, Georgia had bounced around the color wheel. Ultimately, inspired by a color scheme from the 1960s and ’70s Jonathan threw that into a design equation, along with a nickname he found (Empire State of the South), that was already beginning to get complicated.
At the same time he was curating, guiding and creative directing 49 other designers with anything from minor tweaks to major concept simplification.
The next chapter
In the end, everyone’s work paid off; Jonathan’s State Plates Project tumblr launched with a plate-a-day last October. Now, it’s a rich archive of design concept and execution with detailed comments by each of the designers.
Although Jonathan wouldn’t mind seeing some of the plates used in the special interest plate programs that benefit private organizations, he ultimately he feels that it’s the conversation that’s most important: “When the project went viral, people who weren’t designers were starting to find out about it. If we’re just talking to ourselves, that’s great, but actually getting past that early adopter stage, and having people start to realize the potential, that’s where the real impact is.”
We met Jonathan at Creative Jam Atlanta where he was one of the local speakers. Join us for the next Creative Jam and meet someone new.