By on April 8, 2014

Step back from your monitor and just try to read that license plate.

You know those “wait! what?” moments? So I’m perusing a local news site and I see what is surely a press release from Michigan’s Secretary of State, Ruth Johnson, about how the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA, Inc.) has overwhelmingly voted to select Michigan’s new mostly blue and orange license plate depicting the state’s Mackinac Bridge as the world’s best new automotive registration plate. First released last summer, the new plate portrays one of the world’s great spans against what the SoS’ office calls a “sunrise sky”. The registration numbers are white, the background is mostly orange and an almost parakeet blue. In addition to the press release, the SoS’ office also released a photograph to commemorate the award, with Sec. Johnson, and the Bridge Authority’s chairman and secretary jointly holding up the award. So what could be surprising about that announcement? It took place a couple of weeks after a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office specifically told me that the license plate their office describes as a “beautiful plate” is going to be redesigned due to complaints about illegibility from law enforcement officers.

No mention of that planned redesign was made in the agency’s press release concerning the award. I found out about the change on my own after I noticed, while driving in traffic, that from 100 feet or farther, in full sunlight, it’s much harder to read the plate than most of the other Michigan plates. Those plates typically feature dark blue characters against white backgrounds. What makes the new plates almost impossible to read at distance is that they put white numbers and letters against a medium orange background. There’s just not enough contrast. Though the reflective beads on the characters give them a darker cast when illuminated at night, that grey against orange is also very difficult to read.

It's a little easier to read close up.

It’s a little easier to read close up.

After I first noticed how hard the new plates were to read, I looked at the Secretary of State’s web site, or at least the parts that allow comment, and I noticed that I wasn’t the only person complaining about the new plates’ illegibility. My first thought was that if I and other regular folks are having a hard time reading the new plates, what about cops? My second thought was that maybe, since many police cars are now equipped with infrared license plate scanners, perhaps law enforcement doesn’t care that they can’t be read by humans. To find out if they were aware of the problem, I called the SoS’s media office and a spokesperson got back to me.


Though people have been complaining about the lack of contrast since the plates were issued, the Secretary of State’s office apparently took particular notice when they started getting complaints from law enforcement. The agency’s spokesperson referenced complaints from law enforcement as the reason for the revision.

It turns out that I was wrong about police being able to rely on license plate scanners, though they are part of the story. Not only are the new plates difficult to read with the human eye, our new surveillance robots have a hard time deciphering them too. I guess the infrared signature of the two colors are too similar, because the spokesman told me that testing showed that license plate scanners also had difficulty reading the new design, which was created by Brian Whitfield, a Michigan Department of Transportation employee.

As a result of those complaints from law enforcement, I was told that the new license plate will undergo a revision.

Since my day job involves layout and lettering, I suggested that a black outline around the characters would work just fine, but according to what the SoS’ spokesperson told me, they’re going to use a darker color for the plate numbers to make them easier to read, by humans and by machines. The new plate colors have been tested to make sure that license plate scanners can indeed read them.

The ALPCA has been making the award since 1970 and last year they opened it up to a world wide competition. ALPCA members worldwide submit nominations and then vote based in part on the “overall attractiveness of the license plate design”. “I knew it had an excellent chance of winning the moment I first saw it,” said Gus Oliver, ALPCA’s Best Plate Award Coordinator. This was the second time Michigan won the award, the state’s U.S. bicentennial 1976 plate having previously won.

The license plate collectors make their evaluations based on photographs, not the actual license plates, so they had no way of knowing just how illegible the plates are in real life. I spoke to Mr. Oliver and he said that he recently heard rumors that the plate might be changed.

I don’t take any issue with their award of the prize in the first place. I like it when people say nice things about my state. I do think that it’s a bit inappropriate, though, for Ms. Johnson and her office to brag about Whitfield’s design receiving plaudits for its beauty at the same time that they are changing the design because the original didn’t quite work as an actual license plate.

For the record, though I’m fine with the award, I personally didn’t like the plate before I realized how illegible it was. When I first saw the new plate design, my thought was that with those shades of blue and orange, it looked more like license plate for New Mexico, Arizona or California than for the Great Lakes state, the water-winter wonderland.

If you’re looking for a specific license plate for a project or for your wall, ALPCA has a number of state and regional meets, plus Canadian and European license plate collectors also have their own get togethers.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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25 Comments on “Michigan Trumpets Award for “Beautiful” License Plate Design That It’s Already Revising Because It’s Illegible...”

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    In the late 90s Virginia had a contest to submit your own design for a license plate. Winner actually got produced and was available at the DMV.
    The winner was a plate with dried leaves on it (Virginia is a Leafer destination). When I first saw one on the road, I thought it was a normal plate that someone had shot paintballs at. It was impossible to read even right behind someone as the leaves were dark orange and black and the letters were dark blue.

    Soon after the plates were changed to have the leaves surrounding the border of the plate, leaving the letters in an all white background.

    • 0 avatar

      so long as Michigan keeps their “one plate on the back and nothing to ruin the front” policy I vote that they are still better than anything we have in Virginia. #hatethedamnfrontplate

  • avatar

    I loved the plate so much that I went out and got one when I plated my Z car. Why do I love it so much? Because it DOES look like a California/West Coast plate. I put in on the summer car because I want to be reminded of warmer times. If they would put a fine stroke around the letters, they wouldn’t be hard to read and it wouldn’t totally ruin the design. Love the plate and hope it doesn’t go away.

  • avatar

    “I do think that it’s a bit inappropriate, though, for Ms. Johnson and her office to brag about Whitfield’s design receiving plaudits for its beauty at the same time that they are changing the design because the original didn’t quite work as an actual license plate.”

    Just because there’s a conflict here between form and function doesn’t mean that one can’t celebrate an attractive design. I could see a problem with celebrating the technical features of the plate now that it turns out not to function well, but things can be beautiful yet impractical, just like things can be practical yet ugly.

  • avatar

    That is horribly ugly and the people that approved this should be fired. I’m glad we got rid of those lame crayon sky monstrosities Texas tried to foist off on everyone…

    • 0 avatar

      I agree. I don’t understand what is wrong with their current plate. It isn’t fancy but, its readable, with nice colors.

      On a side note here in Connecticut we have had the same plate for about 12 – 13. The plate was even designed to take 7 characters when we run out of numbers. So our design will stick around for awhile. It’s simple blue white gradient background, and dark blue characters, and a dark blue outline of the plate. We here in the Northeast don’t understand why states seem to replate every couple years. Heck Vermont has been on the same plate since the early 80s. Massachusetts since the late 80s as well.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s just like the so-called “Land O’ Lakes” PL8 formerly from Ohio, replaced with something containing inlaid descriptions of various things from the state (Buckeye, Wright Brothers, etc.). Liked it enough to do a re-plate when my renewal came up this year.

  • avatar

    If it were my state I’d be in line to get one today. What are the odds of me wanting my plate to be read by man or machine?

  • avatar

    Ha ha, I knew it. From the day I first saw one of those plates I thought to myself, how the h3ll did this get approved, it is completely illegible and sure enough, it is being revised. There are some other states too that have horrible illegible license plate designs, can’t think of them right now, but you literally have to drive about a foot from the bumper to be able to read the plate.

  • avatar

    Texas had something similar happen. Round about 5 years ago, they came out with a new plate that is primarily digitally-printed over a screen-printed background, instead of embossed characters. The background was a nice, blue sky, with black letters… can’t read ’em. So the quick fix was to lighten the shade of the blue sky, and you can certainly tell the difference between the earlier and later plates of this run.

    But sometime in 2012, they announced a “classic Texas design” would be the new standard plate. It’s a white background with black characters on it. Not only is it a crapton cheaper to make (being only 2 colors and all), but you don’t get much more contrast than black-on-white. So, yeah: the plate-readers can now read the plates much better, plus they’re cheaper to produce.

    Texas has front plates, but registration stickers are located in the lower left of the windshield (along with a mandatory state inspection sticker, so there’s yet something else blocking part of your view out the windshield), rather than on the plates, as apparently people were stealing the registration stickers off plates and the windshield sticker was the solution to that. They also will automagically issue new plates after 7 years due as they’re concerned about weathering.

  • avatar

    It’s not just license plates. The San Diego water department had a state of the art sewage treatment plant that produced reclaimed water not good enough to drink, but useful for lawns and golf courses, and right after it won an award, it was shut down. Without the separate pipes needed, there was no way to deliver the reclaimed water to potential customers, and water tanker trucks made the operation a money loser.

    They originally intended to pump it into reservoirs, greatly diluting it, and with the water treatment plants making it clean enough to drink, but a politician came up with a “toilet to tap” slogan and killed that plan. The politician probably never heard W.C. Fields’ complaint about water: “I never touch the stuff – fish f**k in it.”

  • avatar

    I had a feeling this was going to happen.

    Last fall I finally had to retire my Great Lakes Splendor plate, after fourteen years, eight cars and well over 250k of road action. Personally, I wish they still offered that one, as it was the most attractive plate Michigan ever had. I ended up using the Spectacular Peninsulas plate instead. Hopefully it will hold up for a while. The only reason I replaced the other plate was because the laminate had long since failed and it was corroding to the point it was getting hard to read.

    On a different note, (Ronnie I know you know this) Michigan’s famous blue plate was used from 1983-2007. When they replaced it, many people were sad.

    Now when I lived in Florida, you got a new plate every five years, whether you needed it or not…

    • 0 avatar

      In Massachusetts in the 1970s, you got a new plate with a new number every year, to keep the prison population busy. At least they were/are made of aluminum and didn’t corrode.

  • avatar

    As an ALPCA member I’ll comment that sometimes the members get carried away by a unique color combination and tend to forget about legibility, which is actually one of the factors we’re supposed to consider when voting for the Best Plate Award.

    Michigan’s optional plate designs have made heavy use of blue and orange in the last few years, and I’m surprised that the plate design with white lettering against a reflective background was ever approved – it’s clearly lacking in light/dark contrast.

  • avatar

    I miss the old license plate designs. Simple and elegant. Now they look like some cheesy airbrush art you’d find on a T-shirt at the State Fair. Very White Trash looking.

    Was anybody complaining about license plates when they were simple and functional?

  • avatar

    “I miss the old license plate designs.”

    Me too. It used to be possible to identify the state as soon as you were close enough to identify the color and maybe the color of the characters. Now you have to get close enough to read the name of the state and just hope it isn’t obscured by the background design or a dealer plate frame.

    I do approve of Delaware’s small black/white license plates. Very classy and understated.

    I’d be happy with a simple national standard. We could use euro-style plates with the two-letter state abbreviation over the dark background.

    • 0 avatar

      Delaware’s a strange state when it comes to license plates. The small black-and-white (or black-and-silver) heritage plates are only available for plate numbers with five or fewer digits. You can buy a particular set of plates from someone else and then register them yourself — there are websites where people buy, sell, and trade them — so these special plates are a status symbol here and generally speaking lower plate numbers suggest wealth or at least long-standing residence in the state.

      You can also get personalized/vanity plates using the basic gold-on-blue design. And because Delaware is so small, you constantly see all kinds of crazy plates like “CAT” and “THX DAD” every day. It’s an interesting mix and adds color to the drive every day.

  • avatar

    Not a big fan of license plates as artwork.

    Ohio had a “Beautiful Ohio” plate a few years back that featured a bright blue sky, a bright yellow sun, and green farmland with a red barn. The plate didn’t look like the Ohio where I live – grey is the predominant color in northeast Ohio for much of the year. And I didn’t like having to tote around a cheesy primary-color idealized portrait of Ohio (as designed by the Governor’s wife-true story)on my black 944. Kinda felt like driving a black velvet Elvis (or Kramer!) portrait.

    • 0 avatar

      Ah that was my favorite plate. In fact I loved how it looked on my black Saab and was always proud of it on my car when I left the state.

      I do understand the minimalist plate preference though.

    • 0 avatar

      The ones before that were the best–the new ones are OK too, enough that I decided to re-plate when my renewal came up this year, in order to have the old plate set to keep before it got bent or destroyed in an accident. (I’ve got a special PL8 WITH personalization, and I did a two-year re-up, so “cha-ching!” :-p )

  • avatar

    For some reason states don’t seem to test legibility of plate designs.

    I am often utterly amazed by how many states use a font for the license plate number which have letter characters that are difficult to distinguish. Florida and Michigan are particularly bad but that’s just off the top of my head.

    Here’s a hint states: upper case letters are not as legible from long distance as lower case letters are. Stop using upper case letters.

  • avatar

    My family left West Michigan in 1987,when I was a little kid. But I still to this day think the blue plate with white lettering with “Great Lakes” is quite possibly the best license plate ever issued. Looks unique, but simple. I just have always liked it.

    My grandmother still lives there and she still rolls the special issue (1996?) Worlds Automotive Capital Centennial plate on her car. That one is my number 2. Looks good and rare.

    And I agree, too many states are trying to do too much. Keep it simple.

    Oh, and get rid of the front plate requirements! (never understand why some states require this and claim it is so important… If it was so important then why don’t all states require it?)

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