Md. license plate redesign: Who comes up with this stuff?

Those who said they preferred the old black-and-white plate were unimpressed with the new rendition.
Those who said they preferred the old black-and-white plate were unimpressed with the new rendition. (Courtesy of The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration)
By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

How suddenly we trash our icons.

In a surprise move this week, Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration stopped issuing license plates bearing the design that's served the state for almost 25 years: black numbers on a white background, "Maryland" in Garamond type and a small shield bearing Lord Calvert's crest -- that symbol of Maryland symbols -- in the center.

Simple, dignified, classy. Nay, classic.

And now gone, at least temporarily. The state is now issuing plates commemorating the upcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812 -- a literal take on the "Star-Spangled Banner," with bombs bursting in air, the unrecognizable ramparts of Fort McHenry and the broad stripes and bright stars of the titular flag.

Many find the design cartoonish, others gaudy. And it will be standard issue until 2015. Of the more than 1,500 respondents to an unscientific, online Washington Post poll, 64 percent prefer the old plate. Twenty-two percent deemed it "not great, but not terrible."

An Ellicott City resident, writing to the Baltimore Sun, said the plate looks like a "page ripped from a second-grade coloring book or maybe a computer graphic from 1985."

So how did this happen?

Under Maryland law, the MVA has carte blanche to change the plates. There was little outside review. No public hearings. No lawmakers had to approve.

The idea for the commemorative plate originated with the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission -- a 14-member panel with considerable juice, having been established by history-loving Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in 2007. The commission hired a Baltimore-based marketing firm, director Bill Pencek says, to create "a suite of designs based on a common graphic identity" to link its efforts in various arenas -- including the new Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.

The design then went to the MVA. Spokesman Buel Young says there was a review of the design by an internal working group. "I do know that there were some concerns related to the color, that sort of thing," Young said.

The famous lyrics penned by Francis Scott Key refer to "twilight's last gleaming." But the color of twilight was too close to the color on another optional plate -- the "Treasure the Chesapeake" tags. So a white background it was. State police vouched for the plate's legibility -- et voila: old plates out, new plates in.

But should perhaps the most ubiquitous pieces of state-sponsored public art be subject to any more scrutiny? Are license plates too important to be left to the bureaucrats?

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