Ah, America. Sweet land of liberty. Of thee I write mockingly. The States have been my home for more than one whole year now, admittedly with most of that time spent hugging the Canadian border like a nervous swimmer clinging to the edge of the pool.
One of the design features of the country that I absolutely love is its sense of low-level pageantry, from the pith-helmeted mailmen to the cute conductors’ hats they wear on Amtrak trains.
Part of that fun with design is spotting the occasional rare number plate — I’ve recently learned to drive so have spent a lot of time looking at other people’s cars, and up here in Washington you grow quickly used to the sight of Mt Rainier adorning every car boot, with the occasional Oregon tree or “Beautiful BC” tourist. So it’s a minor novelty if you spot a Pennsylvania or an Arkansas, and it adds a little bit of regional spice where the bog-standard white and yellow British plates just can’t compete.
So as the internet’s resident rankings person, I naturally started to compare designs and noticed that I had some definite favourites — and the only rational course of action was to sort them definitively.
As usual, I’ve taken every plate in the USA — one from all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, the five US overseas territories, and special plates used by the Federal Government, and sorted them according to my preferences, ranking on originality of design, technical execution, and quality of the concept. I’ve also awarded bonus points for some which I think are particularly fun.
For each state or entity, I’ve used the default plate — the standard license plate you’d get on the average car. I’m well aware that many states have different variants, including sponsored plates, and frankly it was far too much work to catalogue them all, particularly when so many are basically the same as the standard plate with a regional sports team attached. This also seemed the fairest way not to discriminate against smaller states with fewer variants.
As usual, if you have feedback, questions or simply want to express your undying love, I can be found on twitter at @TheWildeRobin or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My design portfolio, which is badly in need of an update, is at robinwilde.me.
So let’s put some Springsteen on the stereo, fuel our disturbingly inefficient vehicle with high-octane gas, and set off on our journey through the badlands of American license plate design.
The only state named after a cutesy anime greeting. I can see what they’re doing here — rather the opposite of North Dakota, cramming in every one of the state’s achievements and attractions to a single design — but it’s ill conceived. Nobody’s going to be close enough to read them all (not without imminently receiving head trauma) and the range of fonts and weights just makes things overly busy.
When I first conceived this list I would have struggled to associate a single thing with Connecticut. Thanks to my girlfriend’s valiant efforts I can now begrudgingly add the Gilmore Girls, and having Lorelai and Rory flanking the letters and numbers here would be a significant improvement on this insipid gradient that mostly resembles the horizon on a particularly polluted day. Having nothing to do with the state outline except wedge it awkwardly into a corner is a bonus kick in the ribs.
I’m told this is current, but if you told me it was actually from 1948 I wouldn’t doubt you too much. Massachusetts has so much going for it — its great universities, unique landscapes, the great and (comparatively) old city of Boston — and we go for… nothing but a deeply lame font. At least they provide a handy guide on how to spell the state’s name. I usually mess that up when I’m doing the Sporcle quiz of all the states.
54. North Dakota
There’s an old Family Guy bit where a tourism ad for North Dakota declares “we’re not even the best Dakota!”
That might not be fair — I’ve never been, though there is a direct train from Seattle — but it’s certainly true of its number plate. The goal, in my view, is partly to subvert stereotypes and make the state look attractive and dynamic. Representing the state as mostly flat and brown with no notable features except a singular bison (which looks like two people in a pantomime costume) is not meeting that task head on.
So in short, there’s no reason North Dakota couldn’t have a good license plate, but there’s Far (to) go. I’ll be here all week.
Marginally improved over the Massachusetts nothingness by its adoption of a watery swoosh and a very 1990s-leisure-centre stylised M, but the problem is that those aren’t very good either — Michigan is undoubtedly surrounded by water, but it surely has some specific landscapes or bits of cultural history worth celebrating, too. Maybe they should have a big picture of Journey in South Detroit (Windsor, ON).
52. New Hampshire
The old man of the mountain is a fairly cool bit of local geology for New Hampshire to celebrate, and the slogan saves it from being the Fictional President From The West Wing State. Otherwise there’s not a lot else to commend it — the photographic reproduction is poor (always a risk when you’re printing on metal), and the clouds in the background look more like an accidental smudge.
If you’re British, you probably think this one is Alabama, or else you know it mostly from having a maddeningly different pronunciation to Kansas. Basically, find Louisiana (the one next door to Texas) and go up one.
The imagery is because they’ve got a diamond industry that’s spawned an imaginatively named state park called Crater of Diamonds, where, if you fancy your luck, you can go and search for diamonds in person. Still, it’s a rather slim basis for a state identity (although it does, I suppose, show a Little Rock). It keeps the limp background gradient from Connecticut, and adds some extremely chunky 90s text whose colour clashes badly with the background.
California, man, how badly can you drop the ball? You’ve got by some measures the world’s fourth largest economy, some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, you’re the centre of the world’s cultural output in virtually all broadcast media, and you even have an iconic state flag and colour scheme.
But instead of the bear, we get a squished DMV web address, a blank background, and the ugly scrawled California signature, which isn’t even a calligraphic flourish like the Coca Cola logo, but someone with vaguely nice handwriting scribbling it down.
Vacations in Maine are, I’m sure, lovely. However, there wasn’t a total need to represent every aspect of the experience — the grey skies for much of the year, or the apparent need to view the trees through a mosquito net. The fonts are very dated these days, and Vacationland would be difficult to read at any distance. Cute bird, though.
The curious slogan and the reasonably nice lettering on the state name saved this from the absolute bottom depths of this list, but it’s not exactly a tour de force either, given the quite interesting and storied history of the state. I guess they can hardly indulge in a tableau of battlefield casualties at Gettysburg, though. Virginia is for Losers might have been a fun reference to its Confederate past.
Florida is one of the states that doesn’t require front license plates, which is probably for the best since it reduces by 50% the amount of time you have to spend looking at America’s Wang. Unfortunately seeing it at all probably means you are in Florida, for which you have my utmost sympathy.
Could be improved by removing the faffy flower from the orange device, and making the font for the URL a) match the one used to stamp the letters and slogan and b) removing the awkward arching, which doesn’t really have enough room to flourish. Option c) is of course removing the awkwardly wedged-in URL entirely.
46. Puerto Rico
Our first license plate from a non-state entity! Mostly in the news in recent years for its endlessly frustrated desire for statehood and its tragic hurricane experience, which led to widespread emigration. As a fairly poor part of the USA, it can’t exactly be expected to spend heaps on redesigning its license plates, which to be fair do use a quality font (Helvetica) but whose main design is obscured by the numbers and uses a rather ugly pale brown. It depicts El Morro, an iconic Spanish fort in San Juan, in case you wondered.
Did you know Georgia grows peaches? They don’t mention it much. Here they’re a little bit shy, though! Come on peaches, show your faces — you’ll help cover up that ugly gradient background, and the limp artwork of fields which resembles a mural you’d find on a diner wall that hasn’t seen a lick of paint since the Eisenhower administration.
A relatively nice colour combination and good choice of fonts saves The First State from being The Last State, and to be fair, it is hard to conjure to mind anything that would encompass Delawareness beyond Joe Biden riding the train. It’s just also hard to place it much higher when it’s only attempting the basics, even when it carries them off competently.
Idaho used to have a license plate shaped like a potato, which was in fact the first branded license plate in the country. Locals were apparently somewhat split on the issue, with some of the more sophisticated types thinking it was an embarrassment that made them look like hicks. Happily, since ditching it, nobody now thinks of Idaho as a land of paranoid gun-toting hillbillies, so all is well. The layout here isn’t objectionable, but the ominous red sky and mention of potatoes without showing them does cause me to suspect this foretells the inevitable potatocalypse. Stand by your peelers.
42. New Jersey
Great advertising for the 2004 movie starring Zach Braff, less so for New York’s noisy neighbour. The movie posters were a similar shade of yellow too, but didn’t use this insipid gradient they all seem to love so much. A very generic plate which manages to slightly annoy me with its mismatched fonts.
41. American Samoa
It’s cute that this place is so small (population 55,000) that they only need four digits on their license plates. Allowing room for the island in the background to show through is a nice attention to detail that most of the other plates down at this end of the list lack, and the artsy palm tree is a sweet touch. I just can’t get past the bad idea that is deploying complex photography in these designs, which harms legibility and must make production more of a hassle.
It’s very movie poster of them to pull the old “face on portrait split down the middle” trick with Lincoln — who I can understand them wanting to celebrate rather than, say, Al Capone. Negative space is about the only acceptable purpose I’ll allow for the awful background gradient, but once again I still wish it wasn’t there. Most unforgiveable of all is that, having found a font that works for both name and slogan, they’ve painfully stretched it to fill space, an unnecessary and ugly move that distracts from the otherwise half-decent layout.
I harbour an irrational hatred for Oregon’s wimpy little tree, and I think it’s because rather than conveying the towering majesty of the Oregon forests, it reminds me of a Christmas tree that’s been left up too long so that all the needles have turned brown and started to fall off. And, like a Christmas tree needle through your foot, the end result is painful. Still, the rest of it isn’t awful, and conveys Western Oregon’s awesome skyline of looming mountains quite well — I can highly recommend seeing them by train on a journey from Seattle to Eugene. Never mind that two third of the state is more like scrubland and desert, since, well, nobody is clamouring to put Eastern Oregon on a license plate.
38. South Carolina
A quite profound slogan that gets a truck driven over it by being set in such a horrible Hallmark typeface. The strip at the bottom works nicely and it’s just a shame the rest meanders off into overdesigned messiness.
Like California, Texas is a very large and populous state woefully underselling itself on its license plates. The star should be the primary focus — given the slogan — and there’s not so much of a hint of the iconic flag layout or red-white-blue colour scheme, nor any nod to the state’s reputation for cowboys or rocketry, which used to feature prominently.
36. Northern Mariana Islands
Kind of cool, but not immediately visually obvious — although if you’re in the Northern Mariana Islands, the only place where you’ll likely find these plates, you’re probably a bit more culturally familiar. The decorative wreath is called a mwarmwar and is positioned around a latte stone, the basic foundation of a traditional Chamorro house, found on the Marianas and on Guam. And now you know.
I have never understood America’s love for its covered bridges — boxy and ugly, I’ve never been particularly clear on their ability to not fall down through age and disrepair, either. The illustrations here aim for complexity but can’t quite manage it, leaving them in a stressfully awkward spot between elegance and detail, like an overly ambitious Flash animation project. Plus, an annoying gradient.
The Kentucky slogan “unbridled spirit” is an inspired one since it manages to encompass both horse racing and whiskey, both of which are rather undermined by being promoted on a vehicle you can’t have whisky in, which entirely replaced the horse as a mode of transport. But never mind. The logo is strong and somewhat redeems an otherwise boring gradient and outline design.
The colour scheme and logo of a mid-sized, Conservative-controlled local council somewhere in rural England. Given Vermont’s population, demographics and rural nature, it’s surprising that it was the most Democratic-voting state in the Union at the 2020 election, but then it’s also home to Ben and Jerry’s and Bernie Sanders. It’s an overly basic design, but bright-ish greens don’t feature much on this list, so it can have some bonus points.
32. West Virginia
Was the original slogan “Wild, Wonderful West Viriginia”? Because if not I can’t see why they don’t have an ampersand in there. The colour scheme is a nice high contrast one, and as a fairly traditional state the serif font isn’t a bad choice. As you are taken home on country roads to the place where you belong, you’ll probably see a lot of these. And that won’t make you too mad.
31. US Federal Government
Even if this plate didn’t say US Government, you’d know immediately from the two-decades old design language, the spartan sparseness of it, and the rather bleak official blue. It’s designed like an IRS form, only you can’t fill in the boxes on a computer. So it’s designed exactly like an IRS form. The logo in the bottom left swaps out depending on the issuing agency, so this one is clearly from the General Services Administration, which basically provides logistical support (websites, transport, office space) to other government agencies. Yes, it does sound like a shadowy spy agency.
A bit like California’s, only it’s using the handwriting font from the Atari Jaguar logo and has a massive pelican squatting in the middle. The photo has not reproduced well and the “Sportsman’s Paradise” slogan juxtaposes in a way that does suggest you’re meant to shoot the thing dead.
One very simple step which would improve this plate would be setting the letters and numbers in white and extending that strip of blue water all the way down to the bottom. At present, it’s a relatively nice, simple illustration (albeit with a slightly dated font) which is permitted exactly one fifth of the space before an authoritarian voice screams “AND NOW THE SERIOUS BUSINESS BEGINS”. Let us have a little fun, please. We’re in Wisconsin, we have to somehow.
Would have been tempting to whack the entire crest in the middle wouldn’t it, but fair play to the Kansas guys for at least trying to disrupt the plain field a little bit. Unfortunately they’ve missed out the actually visually engaging bits (the mountain and the sun we can just see peeking out of the bottom) so we’re left with a rather dull design that doesn’t offend the eye, but hardly inspires. My editor suggests they should have gone with the Wizard of Oz, but that was, famously, about not being in Kansas any more.
I like the Mississippi logo because, having evidently got sick of people not knowing how to spell the name of their state, they have gone off the rails and decided to use it to summon Cthulhu. It’s just a shame the slimy tentacles of Mississippi haven’t yet spread to throttle the letters of the plate in their aquatic embrace, and to cover up that boring seal. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu Jackson wgah’nagl fhtagn -
26. North Carolina
An interestingly ambitious attempt to break the rules on solid colours and merge together high contrast red and blue to overcome space limitations. Unfortunately, while a lighter blue might have worked nicely, the ones they’ve picked just make it really bloody hard to read. Did you know both North Carolina and Ohio claim to be First In Flight? The Wright Brothers were from Dayton, Ohio and built their plane there, but it was first flown in North Carolina. Personally I’d say that gives North Carolina the win, but really both are wrong — humans had been flying for decades before the Wrights, just using balloons and dirigibles. Was that the smuggest thing I’ve written in this article? It might be a contender.
Alabama doesn’t really have the best reputation outside of the South, but if its beaches actually do look like this then it mightn’t be so bad. The illustration work is nice and not too overdone, but it’d perhaps be better if the key lettering was in white for higher contrast.
The Maryland flag is undoubtedly quite a cool design, and my housemate from the state tells me that they do like to plaster it all over everything. I can see why, so it’s a shame that it feather out like this as though blanketed in fog. On the other hand I can imagine it being a nightmare to make text legible against all those high contrast areas and multiple colours, so perhaps it was the only way short of starting from a different concept.
23. New Mexico
Definitely striking, and the contrast is great — it’s a little sparse, but borrows heavily from the New Mexico flag, arguably the best in the country. I wish that pattern ran around the whole edge of the plate, or at least across the entire top. It’s arguably a little bit too vibrant — but your mileage may vary. It’s amusing to think that New Mexico’s most popular recent cultural output — Breaking Bad — has all its characters driving around with these cute little license plates on their way to murder one another.
22. South Dakota
I’m not sure the faces are that great, really. Mount Rushmore is such an odd monument with a rather peculiar selection of presidents — Teddy Roosevelt? Really? — but I guess it is at least South Dakota’s main cultural touchstone. I rather like the watercolour look here, and the decision to use semi-transparent lettering stands out in a sea of chunky black characters.
21. Washington DC
A very irritating example of an otherwise good plate messing up something basic by overcomplicating it. The original adoption of the “Taxation Without Representation” slogan was a great bit of campaigning. By subverting the “No Taxation Without Representation” rallying cry, it was harking back to the original conception of American liberty and pointing out the inequity of DC’s hundreds of thousands of citizens being denied legislative voting power. Great. Turning it into a straightforward call to action by adding “end” just makes it too… obvious. Too much pointing out the aim, which detracts from the original allusion.
Anyway, design-wise it’s unobjectionable. The DC flag device is a strong one, and if you’re going to rely on text, you could choose a lot worse fonts. Just a shame they’re once again squished up like that.
20. Rhode Island
An attempt was made, and the fonts match. Hurrah! Known mostly for being the smallest state in the Union, Rhode Island is also the setting for Family Guy (which despite being a show I don’t like, has so far showed up twice in this article). I like the colour combination and there’s a good go at a sort of Yin-Yang effect with the wave in the background. Not a bad stab at all.
That’s a lot of lakes, although given the state is 225,180 km² and I don’t think Minneapolis is floating on a big raft, I can’t imagine they’re all very big. I don’t particularly approve of the clashing blue and green, but at least the gradient is confined to a small area at the bottom (even if I think it’s a bit superfluous).
18. New York
It’s an interesting (and in my view good) choice to constrain the obvious landmarks — Niagara Falls, New York City, the Statue of Liberty — to a supporting role — New York is so iconic already that it would feel like showing off. The rather classy font choices reinforce a slightly aloof air, but I’m a big fan of the limited colour palette and the tastefully restrained use of the contrasting yellow.
Much like Montana, it really ought to have embraced its oblong shape for as the outline of the whole plate, but the neat layout works to express the state’s shape more subtly, even at the cost of some novelty value. The Tennessee crest is a nicely simplified bit of design, which many of the state seem to eschew in favour of neoclassical complexity. The restrained sans serif supports this, creating a modern feel that works well.
Like the Northern Marianas, Guam’s plate also features a latte stone, but it simplifies the rest of its elements much better and earns a higher placing as a reward.
Given Hawaii’s many natural beauties and incredible cultural mix, it’s a strong act of restraint to use a painted rainbow and not overdo it. People already know what Hawaii’s about, so there’s no need to drape it in leis and pineapples. The rainbow rather neatly conveys diversity, friendliness and natural beauty all in one simple shape.
It’s an interesting decision of Iowa to actually highlight Des Moines and its cities in what is by reputation a very rural state. Still, the farm presence is there. and I’m a fan of representing its varied skylines through negative space.
There’s a bit too much grass at the bottom, though. I’d have scythed it down to about half the height and left the lettering more room to breathe.
Pennsylvania is the Keystone State, which is why that slab in the middle isn’t shaped like Pennsylvania (although there’s a handy outline in the top left in case you get lost). The design is simple but relatively restrained and elegant, with the main downside being the awkwardly squished plate number — just have it smaller and the appropriate width, it’ll be much more legible.
12. US Virgin Islands
There’s something very Millenniumcore about this — the sort of design work you’d have found in a science museum in about 2000, when digital design was transforming the prospects for what designers could do. The kind of design you’ll find in ambitious transit projects and urban buildings from before 9/11, climate change and the Great Financial Crash made us all cynical about the future. The sleek sans serif lettering, the layering up of multiple background elements, and the high contrast blue and orange colour scheme which would become so mocked on movie posters towards the end of the decade. It’s good, but it’s weirdly nostalgic.
Yeehaw. The Overrepresented State is probably the highest ranking plate to use photography, and that feature (showing Yellowstone National Park, incidentally) contributes nothing to its high placing — it’s all about that cowboy. You do very instantly get a sense here of what Wyoming is about in a way that other plates — even for places with distinct identities — miss. Take note, Texas.
Alaska’s flag always confuses my brain on first glance because it looks like a broken EU flag, but it’s hard to deny it’s a very striking design, and that the Big Dipper is an instantly recognisable symbol. It’s perhaps an overly simple design, but the embossing of the flag icon and the lettering mean that it has a solid, permanent feel that a more thin printed design wouldn’t have had. Good work.
Well what else would you put on a Colorado plate than the iconic and ever present mountain skyline? Particularly given the bulk of the state’s population is budged right up against the Rockies, it’s very appropriate. The attempt to add texture to the mountains actually detracts slightly in my view — it would have been simpler but just as effective to leave it as negative space, and would have enhanced legibility of the lettering. I give it a lot of credit for not feeling the need to cram in the state nickname (the Centennial State, on account of being founded in 1876) leaving some pleasant breathing room.
Oh, what a missed opportunity! Up north of here, the Yukon and Northwest Territories plates use a bear shape, and given Montana’s slablike appearance it shouldn’t have been too hard to just cut the plate into a Montana shape. Still, it’s simple but tasteful, and the little skull mark isn’t so prominent that it earns a rechristening as the Edgelord State.
Nice bit of negative space here, with the bird outline only jumping out when you step back a bit — but even if you don’t notice it, the colours complement one another well enough that it could easily just be a pleasing abstract design. The font is rather chunky, but it is at least internally consistent from top to bottom. Demerit for that unpleasant dark red which clashes somewhat, but a good example overall.
It probably annoys people from Eastern Washington that the iconic Mount Rainier is the sole geographic feature of the Washington plate, but on the other hand, it is visible from the vast majority of the bits of the state where people actually live, and I’m not sure even the most rabid Spokane nationalist would advocate using the Scablands of the middle of the state as the iconic bit of geography. The colour combination and use of imagery is tasteful and doesn’t overdo its level of complexity, and is marred mainly by the dull colour used for the Evergreen State slogan (and the fact it doesn’t actually show any evergreens).
Some of the best plates on this list go for elegant tourist advertising, but Missouri’s severe officiousness also ticks a lot of my boxes. America doesn’t like the smack of firm government, but there’s a nice dignity to a subtle crest that Missouri delivers on.
Yeah, fair play, the cacti and the lumpy purple silhouettes of the desert landscape are peak Arizona, and the slogan doesn’t make itself too present, tucked in as it is to an otherwise unused corner of the plate. It’s a shame they fall back on a gradient, but a sunset is about the most appropriate use case for such a device, so I’ll look the other way. The colour choice is great and all of the tones chosen complement each other really well.
I’d have gone for “Utah — get high” but I’m told that might have other implications. A lovely bit of simple but elegant illustration, highlighting and leaving some breathing room for the state’s immense natural beauty (which granted isn’t quite matched by the large industrial estates you trundle through when you take the train into Salt Lake City). There’s something pleasantly contrasting without being brash about the colour scheme, and the lettering being a very deep blue rather than a disruptive black assists this.
The gaudiest state in the Union (sorry, Texas) could have so easily gone with a roulette wheel or a neon sign aesthetic, but it went for the more classic cowboy look instead. Fans of Fallout: New Vegas will find the skyline very familiar, and the use of polygonal geometry to create complexity rather than relying on painted or photographed artwork is a great way to work within the limitations of the medium. Flat colours also contribute to this success, and while the font is a little kitschy, it works great in context. If you’re going to use a state outline, the simple geometry of Nevada works well for it, and its integration as a separating glyph between the two halves of the plate number ensures it isn’t just filling space.
It’s a winner, obviously — fucking look at it — but it’s hard to think of a more hilarious mismatch between a state’s reputation and its license plate. The mural in the background is the Genius of Creative Energy and is found in the Nebraska state capitol building in Lincoln. Which is a good thing too, as otherwise the imagery of Zeus chucking lightning bolts doesn’t relate too much to a place largely known for growing a lot of corn.
Still, it’s a lovely bit of art deco mural design handily condensed into license plate form, with a tasteful font and the sharp angles you’d expect to see chiselled into a WPA library from the 30s. Classic meets modern and the result is a clear winner.