License Plates, Civic Design, and Public Engagement

My least favorite moments in Rhode Island politics are the moments where graphic design comes front and center. The “Cooler & Warmer” debacle was excruciating, in part because people were relentlessly negative on an external advertising campaign (Rhode Islanders weren’t the intended audience), the crowd-sourced alternatives were bad, the State didn’t even stick to it after enduring the humiliation, and someone ended up resigning over it (resigning over a goddamn tourism campaign, what in the world).

Now, forced to finally change our license plates, we’ve learned our lesson. We’re doing a contest!

Now, there are shockingly few situations where graphic design should be a contest. As graphic designers are quick to point out, you don’t ask pastry chefs and/or bakers (genuinely unsure about culinary specialization here) to compete to see who can bake the best cake when selecting one for your wedding, and there are no plumb-offs to see which plumber will get your business. Graphic design is a profession, and the complaint is that it should be treated as such.

There are some situations where design contests work (or at least open calls for submissions if not genuine contests). I tend to think flag design is a great example (and similar, civic-minded design needs where there’s room for creativity). However, I think these sorts of events have to be closely managed, especially public expectations. A key part is that the winner is selected by whoever has the authority to make the decision, not via popular vote.

My gold standard is something like the Canadian flag design process. Once the process was opened to the public, it proceeded in a manner like this:

  1. A committee was created to design a new flag
  2. Submissions were collected
  3. A committee member took the recommendation of a friend (George Stanley), worked with the committee’s heraldic artist (Alan Beddoe) to make a version; they also took an element from another design (George Bist’s square “Canadian pale”); this design was added to the submissions
  4. Committee members debated the submissions and narrowed it down to three
  5. The current design was ultimately recommended by the committee, refined one more time, and adopted by Parliament

Notably, the public’s part was at the front end of it: the ideas-generating phase. It was not at the other end of it, the decision-making phase. And that, to me, is for good reason.

There’s a problem with making these sorts of decision by public vote: the public doesn’t have any real consensus, and has no way to reach a consensus. Instead, what often occurs is delay and derailment. We see this with public comment a lot: the public is very good at saying what it opposes; but it has a devil of a time coming up with solutions that it would like.

And, in fact, that’s okay! The public doesn’t have time to study issues and come up with solutions. It turns out, the public elects a bunch of people to come up with the solutions. Those people oversee a vast bureaucracy which is built entirely to develop, administer, and refine the solutions that have been enacted. This is government.

However, after decades of poor, biased, and frankly quite reckless and racist decision-making, people rightfully felt miffed that their input into government basically only occurred during elections (assuming those were competitive) and pushed for more public engagement. At the same time, executive branches nationwide were centralizing power up and down all levels of government. These two factors coincided. Executive branches saw another way to go around the legislature (the legislature being the people elected to represent “The People”) and get the public’s seal of approval for its decisions. The public saw forums where they could mobilize and (if nothing else) make their voices heard by people making the decisions (maybe).

However, the public is still as divided as ever on lots of issues. Public engagement processes don’t create consensus. They can’t reach compromises. They can’t make decisions about who will lose and who will win, and why some will win and some will lose. These processes can’t do the hard work of politics; they can only do the easy bit. For the hard work, you still need legislatures (or their empowered proxies) to debate, search for solutions, and make decisions. At their worst, public engagement processes provide cover for policymakers to do what they were already going to do anyways. At their best, they are places where potential solutions are discovered. Sadly, most public engagement processes seem to be about getting the former rather than latter.

Having stated all this, let’s talk about this license plate design contest.

Poor State Design Standards & Government by Internet Vote

Should a design contest for a license plate have been held? In a perfect world: no.

In a perfect world, the State would have a cohesive brand with guidelines for everything. This is really something the State of Rhode Island desperately needs. The State can’t even reliably produce its own seal, with government officials ostensibly often having to Google search “seal of Rhode Island” or something and then using an erroneous Wikipedia version. Governments develop brands all the time (see: Canada; or Oslo, Norway) – there’s no reason something like this shouldn’t exist for Rhode Island.

Had something like this existed, it could’ve been relatively simple for the DMV to consult the brand guidelines and develop new license plates that fit within a larger “Rhode Island” identity. This process would’ve been over almost as soon as it started. Would there have been no griping? No. But people would adjust. After all (as Journal scribe Antonia Noori-Farzan points out) some people hated the wave license plate when it came out. Now it’s beloved!

However, we don’t live in a world where that’s happened. We live in Rhode Island, where a cohesive state graphic identity doesn’t exist. And in that case, I will say, doing the license plate by design contest is okay…ish.

The DMV still could’ve put out a request for proposal for a graphic designer and paid them to present some design solutions for it to choose from. Personally, I think this would’ve been a fine solution. If the State wanted public participation in that process, it could’ve collected information from the public about what sort of things they would prefer to see on the license plate and that feedback could’ve shaped the designs presented by the designer.

What happened instead was okay, but I think they failed to stick the landing.

First, the State held a contest which ran for a month. This is good; accept submissions, get ideas, see if there’s anything that might point to consensus. What came next is where the process seems to have broken down.

Once the 940 submissions had been collected, the finalist designs were decided on by “the DMV and Gov. Dan McKee’s administration.” So after nine weeks of this unspecified group deciding, did they pass on some choices from which Rhode Island can “pick something representative of the state that they could be proud of” in the words of DMV administrator Bud Craddock?

Well, that really depends. The reaction on Twitter seemed negative (even the guy who designed the current license plate ragged on his would-be successors); but then, the reaction on Twitter (and in the press) generally tends to be negative. Certainly, as some folks pointed out, photos from the announcement didn’t exactly feel like there was a lot of choice. A number of tweets suggested all the designs were boring.

Some of it was that the finalists just didn’t get a fair shake. Willem Van Lancker actually put together a pitch for his finalist design, and I think it makes a good case for it. Indeed, it feels like all the finalists should’ve been invited to explain each of their designs and pitch the public on it. Placed together without explanation, they do feel same-y and uninspired.

But it also feels like whoever made the final selection could’ve made edits. For instance, one design appears to use the anchor designed by people on Wikipedia in 2006 (down arrow and all). That anchor has some notable problems, even its current (more correct) form (as a I pointed out after it was used by Helena Foulkes’ campaign).

That’s something a committee could’ve removed and replaced before submitting to the public. Even better, a committee could have looked through the designs, found symbols or motifs that were repeated across many of the entries and (working with a graphic designer) combined them into a cohesive design that made some kind of hint at consensus and then submitted that along with the other options.

But it’s not clear why these designs stood out from others. There’s a notable lack of transparency here. The selection feels arbitrary. It feels like whoever picked these finalists went with designs they thought would get the least objections. What, for instance, was the rationale that led to any of these designs being considered over the design that acts as the lead photo for this Journal article on the contest? I’m not saying that one is necessarily better, but I just don’t know what the criteria were. These sorts of questions will get worse when all 940 designs are finally released.

And this is why I think the process is likely to lead to sore feelings at the very least. The State has effectively made a non-decision. It’s said, “here are five options we picked, and we’d like you to decide. But we’re not telling you why we picked these five options, who specifically picked them, or anything in particular about them.” The site where you vote just has the license plates, no other information. It’s been up to the press and the designers themselves to explain their designs.

This feels to me like a government that fears making its own decision. It’s afraid to tell you who made the decision, and why. What it would rather have is the public “choose” for them, but it’s a controlled choice made with a deficit of information. You can’t tell the DMV “these are all bad, go back to the drawing board.” You can’t say “uh, I’d like to learn more.” Even the democratic aspect is illusory. Though they’ve worked to prevent the use of bots, the ability to vote more than once means that a coordinated group of people can influence the outcome (also, contrary to what Craddock told the Journal on December 7, the order of the designs didn’t change at all for me).

Government Can Do This Better

I have to contrast this unfavorably with the Providence Committee on Ward Boundaries, which also went through a public engagement process. Somewhat like the license plate process, that committee received ideas and proposals and public comment (albeit, they didn’t hold a mapping contest). Similarly, the Ward Committee had to arrive at a single proposal that was going to displease a number of people. They also put out many initial choices. But the process was run in a much better manner. The Committee itself made the decisions (and we know who was on it). They got ideas and feedback and critique from the public, but at the end of the day, they were the ones that had to make a recommendation and they made one. But they made it transparently. They told everyone why they made decisions, what the hard choices they were making were, and what their criteria for making those decisions. They adjusted their proposal based on feedback. But they still owned this decision (and the City Council will have to approve or adjust that decision further).

A license plate is much lower stakes than a ward boundary map. But transparency is key across all of government, no matter the stakes. People care (a lot) about what goes on their cars. And the least government can do is be straight with the people about why it’s making the decisions its making. Even a process without public participation can be transparent; for instance, saying “hey, we designed this according to our publicly-available brand guidelines” is a transparent decision (maybe we should have some publicly-available brand guidelines).

The DMV has been quite clear and transparent about why the design had to change (updating the design allows the State to identify unregistered vehicles and uninsured drivers). But it needed to carry that transparency over to how it made its selection of the finalists. It needed to explain why these designs stood out, who exactly made that determination, and what the criteria it used were. Even if that criteria is just “well, the committee liked waves and the Pell Bridge best” that’s okay to tell us (and yes, you will be criticized).

This was never going to please everyone. People don’t like change, and new designs will always lack the sentimental attachment that existing designs have. There’s a reason the wave plate has stuck around for 25 years. But a thin veneer of democratic decision-making isn’t going to change any of that. People were always going to complain.

Government needs to govern. That doesn’t mean don’t listen to or run roughshod over the people, it means explaining yourself and having the courage of conviction to make the decisions you think need to be made.

One comment

  1. I really enjoyed this one- laughed at several points made- like the word “ plum-off” So many great points made- love the one about the public being good at what it opposes but having a devil of a time coming up with solutions – sooo true! Ok have you thought of condensing this one to submit to your Providence newspaper’s letters to editor? Or a column in the paper- I guess it’s who you know… but this one is such a good one for all folks , not just those into politics. Have a great week! Patti

    Sent from my iPhone


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