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

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010; B02

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?

Pencek calls it "a very fair question," but he argues that it's important to give pride of place to a landmark event in Maryland's history. "At worst, the plate is a temporary standard plate, and Marylanders do now have other choices," he says. "At best, the new plate generates new attention to what is perhaps Maryland's most important national heritage story."

Virginia celebrated the 400th anniversary of settlers' landing in Jamestown with, among other things, a license plate. But Virginia's tag-based promotion involved a much less drastic change and was done by act of the legislature. Ohio did a redesign of its plate for its 2003 bicentennial. There, no less a personage than the state's first lady gets an exclusive review of the design, says a Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman.

The District has its own war bicentennial commission -- albeit one without governmental sanction or taxpayer support. It, too, is trying to get on the commemorative tag train and recently announced a design contest.

Acqunetta Anderson, chairwoman of the D.C. commission, was circumspect in discussing the Maryland plates. "I don't really want to comment on it, but I do work with Maryland," she said. "We will include citizens in all aspects of the planning."

Back in Maryland, it's hard to find much outrage in the halls of power. A spokesman for former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who is running against O'Malley, praised the old plates for being "elegant in their simplicity" and questioned the expenditure.

"We appreciate creativity as much as anyone but weren't sure the War of 1812 was in need of new publicity," said spokesman Andy Barth.

But legislators aren't itching to second-guess the MVA -- in part because of the subject matter involved. "The War of 1812 is somewhat special for Maryland," says Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), the House majority leader. "I think it's appropriate, I really do."

Shaun Adamec, spokesman for the O'Malley administration, said his boss will be proud to display the new tag.

He acknowledges the Calvert plate's iconic status. "The hope," he said, "is that this new one will reach that same stature."

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