Of License Plates and Design Contests

(Photo credit: Ericci8996 - retrieved from Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ocean_State_512.jpg)
(Photo credit: Ericci8996 – retrieved from Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ocean_State_512.jpg)

Some of you may know that the standard Rhode Island license plate (a low-numbered version is pictured above) is going the way of the dodo; the expected extinction date is September 1st, 2017. The new version is decidedly “meh” — the design is part of the “Discover Beautiful Rhode Island” campaign that may have been hatched somewhere inside the State as a way to attract tourists to the state. The new version is white text on a solid blue background, with a small gold silhouette of 1903 America’s Cup defender Reliance in the upper lefthand corner. It’s not a particularly inspiring design, but it’s not objectionable either.

As the Valley Breeze‘s Ethan Shorey points out on Twitter, designer Adam Solomon has offered his critiques and alternatives. And earlier in the year, when Rhode Island adopted the New England Patriots charity plate, local architect William Morgan went through the history of license plate design for Slate.

Rhode Island’s new plate appears to be mainly for the purpose of allowing the police to read it, according to The Journal‘s Lynn Arditi:

Unlike its predecessor, which has stamped, raised letters, the new plate is a flat, digital image that officials said is more reflective and therefore more visible to law enforcement.

Rhode Island will be one of 30 states with the “cutting edge” design, Anthony J. Silva, the DMV’s administrator, said at the news conference.

The “retro reflective sheeting” that all license plates are made of, he said, enables them to be visible at a minimum of 75 feet in daylight and darkness. But the material is only guaranteed for a maximum of 10 years, he said, after which it is supposed to be replaced.

But what if you’re not happy with the license plat design? Advocate Anna Cano Morales offers an idea that could be used in a decade’s time:

This gives me pause. As someone who dabbles in design, I know that speculative work like design contests are awful — within the professional design world there’s a strong dislike of them. They offer the idea that design can be done for cheap and without much thought. They generally result in bad design – look at what Thayer Street District Management Authority ended up with when they did a logo contest (okay, it’s not a terrible logo, but I’m not going to say it’s good, either). And design contests are severely exploitative. Of the 52 submitted designs for judging, only one got the $1000 prize. That means that 51 other designers/design teams did work that had a potential value of $1000 and got paid nothing. And it worked out well for Thayer Street, because they got an amount of work worth somewhere around $52,000 and paid only $1000 for it. Alternatively, they could’ve paid one design $1000 and gotten themselves a halfway decent logo with multiple drafts.

Side rant: There’s virtually no other business professions besides design that people work like this. Restaurants don’t hold contests for “best dishes” when looking for new offerings, we don’t hold “builder contests” when constructing houses. People would rightfully be scornful.

So, I really don’t want to teach teens who may be aspiring designers that their work can be got for cheap and is inherently worthless unless the powers that be deign to pay for it.

That said, civic design sometimes requires multiple efforts to choose from, and this is where I think something akin to a contest is okay. One thing the State could do is set aside a number of paid slots for designs, and then ask designers to submit portfolios — students are capable of creating and submitting portfolios. It wouldn’t exactly be fair, but some students could rise to the challenge. Designs (professional or student) could get paid for their work, and the citizens and the State could have choices. If someone really wanted to submit free designs out of civic duty, fine. But an exploitative contest alone should not be the only method.

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