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Here’s Your New License Plate Design, Nebraska; Don’t Let the Other States See You Cry

Nebraska License Plate

The results are in, my fellow Nebraskans, and this is the license plate design that will be gracing our cars starting in 2011:

If you wanted proof that your tax dollars are hard at work, ensuring that Nebraska state employees are trained in the latest Microsoft Paint techniques, there you go. And if you wanted proof that some folks have nothing better to do with their online time than be asshats, well, you’ve got that too.

CollegeHumor ran a little contest — ​“Ruin a Nebraska” — encouraging their users to stop by the license plate survey and vote for the above design. All told, over 40,000 people voted for the design, a figure that includes an unknown number of people who voted via CollegeHumor’s contest.

I can’t say I’m pissed about it — it’s just a license plate, after all. However, it does sadden me that this is the best that Nebraska — a state blessed with some terrific marketing and design firms — could pull off. None of the choices were good — at best, they were unoffensive — but frankly, something as big as this deserves more than just a half-assed attempt like the one you see above.

State officials, such as Governor Dave Heineman, have defended the design by downplaying the its aesthetics in favor of its function. As Heineman puts it:

I recognize that plate designs are a matter of personal taste, but I want us to remember their primary function is to assist law enforcement… During this process, the critical nature of the plate’s purpose was often omitted from the discussion.

The same article also quotes the Nebraska State Patrol superintendent:

Col. Bryan Tuma, the State Patrol superintendent, said it’s imperative that license plates be easy to read for troopers who might be trying to find a missing child or identify a vehicle that might be connected to a crime.

​“We need to be able to sort those vehicles out quickly,” he said. ​“That’s oftentimes in traffic where you have only a quick instant or just an opportunity to glance at that plate and read it.”

Valid points, all of them. But such statements seem to assume that you can have form or you can have function, but you can’t have both. You can have a license plate design that is aesthetically pleasing (for example, that references Nebraska’s rich history or even our state religion) or one that will help law enforcement officials do their job by being legible, but you can’t have both.

This, of course, is a fallacy. Good design and usability — which is basically what Heineman and Tuma are talking about — are not opposed to one another. Rather, they’re two sides of the same coin.

May 19, 2009