ALPCA members have nine choices up for consideration for the 2020 Best Plate Award. The thinner-than-usual field is undoubtedly due in part to the impact of COVID on the moving parts that make these sorts of things happen.
I used my phone to take my first glance at the February issue of Plates Magazine, and all nine entrants are featured prominently on the cover. When I saw the Alabama candidate, I thought to myself: “Why is there a popsicle on this plate?” It was coloured the same pink-white-and-blue of those rocket popsicles that generations of kids have been eating. As it turns out, the Alabama plate isn’t pink; it’s just a bad picture. A few of the other entrants are also marred by less-than-optimal imagery. So, I have taken the time to find higher-resolution images and colour-correct them to the best of my amateur ability. In the interest of accuracy, I’ve decided to contrast the colour-corrected versions with those that appear on the cover of the magazine. The source images are not mine, but the Photoshop work is all me, baby.
The Best Plate chairman, Gus Oliver, can only offer pictures as accurate as those that are supplied by the club members who come forth with nominations. With a tight press deadline, there’s no time for him to fart around with Photoshop or chase people down to ask for better images. So let me be clear that I’m not directing any blame or disdain on Gus’ efforts; he deserves better than that. Serving as a club volunteer can be a thankless job at times (this I know from seven years of personal experience). Maybe I’ll offer some graphic help to him for next year if he’s short on high-quality images.
Anyway, on with the show. Here’s how they rank with me, taking into account legibility and design.
9. Oklahoma: There are no plates in the running that I actively dislike. However, I’ve had to relegate Oklahoma to the bottom spot because of legibility. The psychedelic design is interesting to look at. It reminds me of the old animated Beatles movie Yellow Submarine. But there’s just too much going on for this to be an effective plate design; it’s the sun rays that kill the plate for me. The alternating bands of yellow and cyan detract significantly from the plate’s legibility. It’s easy enough to read the word “SAMPLE,” but actual serial numbers will be hard to read at a glance. The plate is supposed to be in support of Monarch Butterflies, yet the dominant feature is the sun. The bright colours on the flowers might not be everyone’s bag, but I don’t mind them. It’s supposed to be a sunny, happy plate, after all. To improve it, I would simply ditch the sun rays and just use a solid cyan background to represent a blue sky.
8. Arizona: This is an interesting-looking design in the same way as the Oklahoma Monarch issue. Plates magazine shows the Arizona plate with a very dark shade of gray where the road extends into the distance (darker image below). Black letters are not very legible atop dark gray. Conversely, the gray is much lighter in the promotional graphic from the state DOT (lighter image below). The actual appearance of the plate, shown above, shows a gray of medium brightness. Daytime legibility is key, but the leftmost character is still obscured by the medium-gray road. The main source of contrast should be with the characters and the background. If the darker colours were brightened overall, as they are in the promo graphic, the plate would be much more legible and a possible winner.
7. Delaware: The First State has issued a new plate with a horseshoe crab, to promote conservation of its waterways and shorelines. However, the promo graphics for this new plate are quite different from the actual plate. The promo shows a light brown crab, and the numbers are dark blue. However, the actual plates have a much darker crab beneath black numbers, which is not as legible of a combination. Plates magazine features the lighter promo image on its cover, which isn’t accurate. I could only find a couple of small images of the issued plates, so I adjusted the colours in a large promo graphic (above) to show how it will really look. The plates—for now—seem to have five digits, and the rightmost digit is obscured by the dark crab. I would rank this plate higher if the lighter crab had been kept. Better yet, the numbers could have been left-justified to keep them away from the crab in the first place.
6. Alabama: This is a sharper-looking plate, now that I know it was supposed to be an orange rocket, and not a pink popsicle. The only red on the plate is contained within Alabama's traditional heart symbol, which appears at the top left. The rocket’s central stage is orange, which is a nice compliment to the other colours. But I don’t quite get the orange swirl that goes across the middle of the plate. Colour-wise, it’s pleasant to see, but it reduces the legibility of the numbers somewhat. The light gray celestial body in the foreground looks like the moon, but in the background, there’s a tan-coloured celestial body… So is that supposed to be the moon, instead? Or are we looking at Mars in the background? Or possibly the Saturnian moon Titan? Or the Jovian moon Ganymede? As an astronomy nerd, I’m tripped up by those details.
5. Ontario: It pains me to place Ontario in the fifth spot. I really wanted this plate to be a winner. The only reason why it’s not running for top spot is because of the whole night-time reflectivity issue. I’m the one who nominated Ontario for the 2020 Best Plate award, because it does fit the criteria: It was first issued in 2020, and even though they’ve been discontinued, there are still lots of them legally on the road, and at the year’s end, they were still renewable.
Anyway, the daytime visibility is just fine, and I like the fact that two shades of blue have enough of a contrast for the light characters to be easily legible at a distance. It’s a very bold design, and it’s the polar opposite of anything Ontario has done in most of our lifetimes. But dammit, they just don’t reflect at night. I rate daytime visibility as more important that nighttime, which is why Ontario takes fifth place here, and not ninth. The poor reflectivity is not a fault of the intended design. I believe 3M followed Ontario’s instructions, using a cheaper manufacturing process that would have been much more suitable for light plates with dark characters. To make the light numbers reflect properly on a dark background would require a more expensive manufacturing process, which I believe was declined by the Ontario government. Ontario gambled on the less-expensive option. It backfired, and re-doing it properly proved too expensive. Premier Ford quietly swept the plates under the rug, just as COVID-19 replaced #Plategate as the biggest news item.
4. Pennsylvania: Legibility is assured with this Sestercentennial issue, which will be renewed with stickers up to and including 2026, thus marking the 250th birthday of the United States. Legibility takes priority over design, and this plate certainly doesn't venture into creative design territory. It’s basically a repeat of the well-established passenger design, with a logo dumped onto the left side. This is no more adventurous or new of a plate than would be one of Ontario’s boring graphic options. Based on legibility, it outranks the previous five plates, but because it’s boring, the other four legible plates go ahead of it. Truth be told, I’m bothered that some of the other more creative entrants have to take a back seat to this case of Pennsylvanian déjà vu.
3. New York: Is it highly legible? Check. Is it an actual new design? Check. But “Excelsior” means “ever upward,” and these plates don’t really venture too far away from what New York has already done. I personally prefer the older gold “Empire State” plates to this one. I find the design to be fairly passive. The gold stripes are a nice touch, and the gold “EXCELSIOR” legend is more interesting than it would be with dark letters. The legend takes a slight hit on the legibility scale because of the gold colour, but it’s still a good call. The bottom graphic, with Niagara Falls / Adirondacks / NYC skyline is a safe choice, but New York used that idea previously. At least they’ve revised the graphic. A production note on the “Excelsior” plate: They were recalled, before issuance, because they had the opposite problem to that of Ontario: They reflected too much light. But rather than scrap everything, Governor Cuomo took the “ever upward” slogan to heart and got it fixed.
2. Kansas: Here’s an example of how to do a dark, flat plate correctly (Ontario Government, take note). Kansas contracted 3M to produce fully-reflective white characters on a dark background. The result? A striking plate that is highly visible during both day and night (could have been you, Ontario, if you weren’t so cheap). The picture that's used on the cover of Plates Magazine is a little dark, and there’s a slight reflection from the flat surface, so I dug up and corrected a clearer image. The colour choice of the background is unusual—red fading to gold-green—but if you like that combination, it works. Regardless of colour preference, this is an interesting plate with high visibility. The wind turbines in the background are more of a “nice touch” than a dominant feature, though. I would prefer the theme to be a little more prominent within the design, but that could detract from the legibility. Overall, a solid second-place plate.
1. Washington: The Washington Apple Commission organized the release of these handsome plates. Guess what? They have a bold design, with a dark background, white numbers that actually reflect, and a splash of colour to boot. The design is highly legible, as well as innovative: Not only is there a high-contrast logo that’s pleasing to the eye, but the background beneath the numbers has a subtle outline of the state of Washington. It’s a nice touch which in no way detracts from the legibility of the plate. If Ontario’s “A Place to Grow” plates had reflected properly the way the Washington plates do, The two would be neck-and-neck for top spot on my list.
I do have one minor complaint about the Washington Apple Commission plate, though: The “WASHINGTON” state name, emblazoned along the top left, is printed in Microsoft’s royalty-free Arial font. Furthermore, the “World’s Finest Apples” slogan is printed in Google’s royalty-free Lobster font. Both of these fonts are featured on low-budget signage everywhere, which is not a very creative choice for an optional plate. And for this reason, if Ontario was still in the running for top spot, I would crown it the winner, with Washington taking a very close second. But here in Ontario, we can’t have nice things, so Washington wins.
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