It’s time for the annual round-up of candidates for ALPCA’s Best Plate award of 2021. Last year, we had only nine entrants, and I found the 2020 group to be a weaker cohort. This year, we have a bigger field with 14 choices. I find this group to be more interesting than the one previous. Still, there are tough choices to be made. I genuinely like a few plates that ended up in the bottom half of my ratings. But that’s because I rate legibility as my most important criterion, followed by theme unity and then attractiveness / ingenuity of the design. All of these aspects combine to produce some plates that work better than others, and that’s what this is all about. I've accepted that flat plates seem to be the way of the future, so I don't discriminate between flat and embossed. That's like hating on an old plate because it's not made of porcelain.
On with the show!
14. Oregon: The background is a mess. I applaud multiculturalism, but the high contrast of the background colours, amongst each other, renders the white characters nearly illegible. The artwork itself is interesting, but the theme is unclear. There are many objects depicted, but I don’t see multiculturalism. If it were hanging in an art gallery, I would need an expert to explain it to me. Perhaps multiculturalism is too multifaceted of a concept to depict on a mere license plate. This design doesn’t work for me.
13. West Virginia: This one is relegated to the bottom end of the list because of its very poor legibility. I generally like environmental plates, and turtles are certainly in need of our attention. The theme is strong. I would've rated this plate higher if the characters had been white. They would show up a lot better than dark on almost-as-dark.
12. Virginia: The legibility is muddied by the dark numbers on a dark background. The theme seems confused, as well. The Great Smoky Mountains serve as a backdrop. Blacksburg, Virginia—the home of Virginia Tech—is located within the range, but the natural aspect of the background clashes with the technical nature of the university. If the VT logo wasn’t included as an afterthought at the bottom of the plate, there would be no clue that this is a university plate. It would work much better if it had a conservation slogan, or if the Smokies were dropped in favour of a more obvious theme, like “Go Hokies!”
11. Ohio: Similar to the sunburst plate of Oklahoma last year, this plate is trying to do too many things. The dark letters against the medium background detract from the serial legibility. A simpler design is needed… This artwork would be better off on a cereal box. I'm glad to see that the vintage aeroplane is now facing the correct direction. If Ohio hadn’t corrected that error a few months ago, I would have rated this plate even lower.
10. Iowa: A fairly simple design, but the dark logo in the middle of the plate detracts from the legibility. Also, this plate treads ground that has been trod many times before: White background with blue and red stripes on top and bottom. It's been done: Take recent issues from Ohio, South Dakota, Idaho, or most inaugural issues from the past 60 years. Yawn.
9. Maine: The ghosted American flag in the background is what spoils this plate for me. It is too busy and reduces legibility. It confuses the overall theme as well: I submit that the flag is actually not necessary for a plate about lighthouses. The theme would be more unified—and the design more legible—with a brilliant blue sky in the background, and a rocky shore toward the bottom.
8. Montana: I like the idea of commemorating the USS Montana. But I think this plate is trying to do a little too much at once. It’s covered with bling like a waiter at TGI Friday’s, circa 1998. The mountains of Montana would never be seen in the same picture as the state’s namesake submarine. If we're trying to commemorate the submarine, why bother with the mountains at all? They’re just clutter, and they detract from the legibility of the serial number. The plate is busy enough with its various insignia around the edges. Remove the mountains, and this plate would climb my charts. But I think the design could be de-cluttered further: One of the extra logos—either the bullhead or committee seal—has to go.
7. Florida: I actually adore this plate. The bear is nicely depicted, nearly silhouetted against the early morning shoreline. On my first glance, I thought that Florida might be in my top three. But I had to pull it back because there's a legibility issue. It's good that they used white characters against the darker background, but there's still too much interference between the serial and the scenery. I’m not a bias-free voter, but legibility is my first criterion for deciding whether a plate falls in the top or bottom half. As much as I enjoy this plate, I can't rate it higher than the more legible entries, so it's stuck at unlucky number 7.
6. Wisconsin: A highly legible plate. The colour scheme catches the eye. I would've preferred a more obvious connection between the graphic and the theme. Not being a midwest resident, I had to visit the website of Versiti, the organ donation society, to know that the organization’s logo uses these colours. Even though the colours are consistent with the theme, the plate looks more like a sunset than a promotion for organ donation.
5. Nebraska: The front runners have high legibility, plus a clear theme that is ascertainable at a glance. Both of these boxes are checked for the Nebraska turtle plate. I like it overall, but I wonder if maybe they are overdoing it with the brown. It's more interesting this way than with plain white, but perhaps light blue water would work better in the background? It’s more of a personal taste thing than anything else.
4. Michigan: Kudos to Michigan for producing a throwback! I love the old style dies, which are unique to the Great Lake State. I personally love this plate, and I would totally run one on my car, if I were a Michigander. The only reason why it doesn't crack my top three is because this design has been done before. It was 1967, mind you—forever ago—but I have to give my nod to jurisdictions that are trying something that has never appeared before.
3. Minnesota: This plate strikes an excellent balance of graphic design and legibility. Nothing interferes with the serial number, yet the design is smooth enough that the white background looks like it truly does belong there. It’s not just an awkward rubbed-out void in the name of legibility. This plate provides the best of both worlds: Both practical and attractive. Like that guy or gal in math class who is both brilliant and super-cute.
2. South Dakota: High visibility, and a very strong thematic link to the design. However, this plate one-ups Minnesota in the use-of-space department: It uses the geographic shape of South Dakota as the white backdrop for the numbers. That area has been changed from a neutral void into something that is integral to the theme and design. The US flag is present, which is a familiar design aspect of many American plates. But the flag serves appropriately as a backdrop, instead of clashing with the serial number like it does with Maine’s entry in this list. Excellent overall execution!
1. Delaware: Pollinators... This is a very important theme, because without them, we don't eat. Various interesting birds and bugs appear along the periphery of the plate. They’re big enough to be obvious, yet none of them encroach on the number, which remains unobscured. The blurred green backdrop evokes forest and plants, and the striking white numbers provide high legibility. The theme is unified across the whole plate. It’s a Goldilocks plate: Nothing is missing; nor has too much been added. It’s eye-catching, with tasteful splashes of colour in just the right places. In other words, it’s just right.
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