Chattanooga graphic designers, motorists share how they really feel about Tennessee's new license plate design

State of Tennessee photo / Photo illustration by Matt McClane
State of Tennessee photo / Photo illustration by Matt McClane

Tennessee has a new license plate design – the first total revamp since 2006.

This year, motorists will trade the idyllic design of the former plate - depicting green hills and black lettering against white - for a more matter-of-fact one. The new design features a dark blue background, white lettering and the state's tri-star emblem in its center.

Representing East, West and Middle Tennessee, the three encircled stars have become a beloved state symbol, proudly sported on everything from our flag to our ball caps to our tumblers. The addition of the tri-star was part of the redesign's goal. Other criteria included the display of the words "Tennessee" and "tnvacation.com."

Mock-ups were made, and in September, Tennesseans were invited to vote on one of the four proposed designs. More than 300,000 participated and the winning plate received 42% of all votes.

A state license plate, says Paul Rustand, director of Chattanooga design agency Widgets & Stone, "is an opportunity to present some sort of personality to the rest of the country."

So what does the new plate say about our state? And more importantly, what do the people say about the plate?

"I think it's important to remember what and who license plates are for," says Kody Dahl, Whiteboard creative director. "They're important for traffic control - but for the public, they play a bit of a brand role. They should be something that looks good on a wide range of vehicles - that you like having on your car."

Here, Rustand and Dahl, along with other local creatives and state residents, weigh in on the great plate debate.

photo State of Tennessee photo / Photo illustration by Matt McClane

> "My first impression was good and bad: Good, that I noticed the change in design. Bad, that upon further exploration it feels fairly 'run of the mill' in its overall design."

> "The new design seems less illustrative, more graphic and symbolic. So I would say it presents a very straightforward and pragmatic attitude, if perhaps a little dull or dry."

> "The dark background with white text is striking (I believe only four to five states in the U.S. use this approach)."

> "While the design incorporates logical graphic elements (stars from the Tennessee flag, an outline of the state, etc.), it misses an opportunity to style or present them in a new and interesting way. The end result feels a little generic."

> "The balance of the design is thrown off by the three letters/bullet/four numerals approach. Asymmetry can be a wonderful design tool, but in this case, it is too close to being symmetrical but is not – and so feels slightly off."

Paul Rustand, Widgets & Stone director

> "My main issue with the plate is on darker cars you really only see the plate numbers, which are important, but the plate tends to blend in with the car paint."

> "I might put a bolder, white border around the plate to separate it from the vehicle color. I also would like to figure out how to make the tri-star symbol from the flag larger."

> "I don't love the Tnvacation.com web address on the plate. I would have placed 'In God We Trust' in that position. I do understand the purpose of the website, but I honestly think most people are going to miss the web address on a license plate."

> "The word 'Tennessee' in the state enclosure ... I believe that is my favorite element."

Marcus Hardaway, Chattanooga artist and graphic designer

> "In my opinion, the new Tennessee license plate is calling attention to too many attributes of our great state. It being part advertisement (tnvacation.com), part tri-star, part county name, and part nickname dilutes what I think is a strong cultural artifact for our state. I would've loved to see a more minimal approach in the final design."

Eric Brown, Whiteboard co-founder

> "License plates are a hilariously constrained medium - you'll never do the mountains or the rain forest any justice when the artwork is covered with letters and numbers, ripping by you at 70mph. This sets the stage well for flat iconography and typography, and a minimalist approach and that aspect of the new plate is really nice - it creates a sense of maturity and modernity that is quite absent on the license plates of our neighboring states."

> "... the new plate does suffer from a few typography and white space issues. There's a lot fighting for your attention - it probably makes sense to choose between either the tri-star or the outline of the state; not both.

> "... the font-weight selected for 'the volunteer state' and the URL is a bit too light, which creates legibility issues at a distance, which is likely why both bits of text are a bit too large for the space."

> "Broadly, I'd give it a 7/10, and I think it's a positive evolution for our state's 'brand.'"

Kody Dahl, Whiteboard creative director

photo State of Tennessee photo / Photo illustration by Matt McClane

> The colors and pale tones [do] not sit well with me. The illustrative approach felt as though it was being too literal: 'Here's what the Tennessee landscape looks like.'"

> "I did not think the black type on top of the white and green looked all that good."

Paul Rustand, Widgets & Stone director

> "As an artist, I find the look of the older plate more appealing. If you really look at it, it really depicts our surroundings. It communicates nature and agriculture for our beautiful state."

Marcus Hardaway, Chattanooga artist and graphic designer

What local motorists are saying about the design

We asked our Instagram followers to tell us what they think about Tennessee's new license plate design. Here are some of their responses.

> "I like the old ones better. They have the Smoky Mountains on them, and Tennessee as the dash mark is brilliant." @kaytiannb

> "Official. Sterile. Banal." @gothscape

> "I love it and waited a month past my expiration to get it." @aboothofficial

> "Old ones looked better. The state should let local artists submit designs, with guidelines, and let the people vote on them." @gestelle

> "Plate color doesn't look good on most color vehicles." @cburtonn911

> "As a graphic designer, I think it's clean. Would be even cleaner without the 'In God We Trust.' Get rid of it or at least make it optional." @jameynorth [Editor's note: The phrase 'In God We Trust' is optional to consumers.]

> "I think it's fresh and sharp! Bravo! I don't mind one bit [if] the traffic cameras can't read my plates!" @nathanheinrich

A problem with the plates?

Beyond its aesthetics, there are some concerns in regards to the new design's legibility - particularly at nighttime when photo images of the plates may appear blurry or downright invisible for some infrared license plate readers. The readers are used by police and others to identify suspects and aid in Amber or Silver alerts.

The issue, according to some experts, may be due to the tag's lack of contrast - essentially, the letters don't pop out enough. And camera optics that are less specialized (i.e. lower-end) may not be able to capture a crisp image.

Tennessee officials are evaluating the concerns, and until complete - the renewal process will continue, as usual, they say. So far, the state has issued more than half a million plates.

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