A Complete Design Analysis On The New North Dakota License Plates

After 23 years, North Dakota is getting a new license plate design. The plate change has gotten a lot of attention as of late, as the new ‘Sunset Plate’ has been appearing around town and all over the state. And it should... after all, this affects the entire state of North Dakota that has consistently been growing by an average of 20 thousand people each year, making it the fastest growing state in all of the United States. That means that 1 million plates will need to be updated between now and 2017, which by no means, is a small feat. In order to accomplish this, they were given a 6.8 million dollar budget: 4.8 million for manufacturing and 2 million on the design itself. Surely, the new license plate design had every opportunity to become the best plate in North Dakota’s history… but is it? After thoroughly investigating each of the design principles, I have determined that the new design is actually quite terrible, and the following explains why.

History Of The Buffalo Plate

First, let’s take a step back and look at the facts. The first automobile appeared in North Dakota on the streets of Grand Forks in 1897. Ever since then, our state has had a wide variety of license plates that reflect the state’s history and function as a way to identify vehicles. The most recent plate, called the Buffalo plate, was created in 1993 and won ‘best new plate of 1993’ by the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association — now that’s something to be proud of! This award-winning plate has been around the past 23 years, displays a blue and yellow background, accented with a buffalo and wheat graphic, and proudly shows ‘Discover the Spirit’ as the state’s slogan.

The Problem

So, if it was so great, what was the issue with that design? According to Jamie Olson, from the North Dakota Department of Transportation, “Some people actually have plates that are that old, but the reflectivity that helps at night time is beginning to fade.” Department of Transportation’s website also explains, “some of these plates are deteriorating and losing the reflectivity.” One may presume, then, that the sole problem with the Buffalo plate is that it has lost its reflectivity. (However, is the reflectivity a design problem or a manufacturing problem?) Either way, let's continue...

The Goal

Now that we know the identified problem, what was the goal of the new plate design? According to State Department of Transportation Director Grant Levi, the one goal of the design was “to retain the beautiful North Dakota skyline,” and  to “represent the history of this great state.” These seem like perfectly reasonable goals, and something every state plate should certainly strive for, but were there any goals to fix the problem stated above? Shouldn’t we fix the legibility, so it can be clearly read? Or at least keep the functionality of the license plate in mind?

The Result

The Department Of Transportation, State Tourism Department, Highway Patrol, and Rough Rider Industries (the prison’s manufacturing operation), got together and, ignoring the core functions of a license plate, had one main objective: To create a design that was consistent with the nature of North Dakota’s history. Plus, they were given 6.8 million dollars to do so. In June of 2014, the Legislature’s Budget Section approved the new ‘Sunset Plate’ design without consulting a designer. Thus, that is how the new ‘Sunset Plate’ has come to be.


A Note On Change

Before I continue, I must  add that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of hating change simply because it’s different. A classic example of this is seen whenever a popular social network makes an interface update—everyone begins to outrage because, well, change is change. Let’s avoid that attitude and give the new update a chance, shall we? In addition, let’s get rid of opinion because honestly that’s all that comes about when a change is made: Opinion. I have no interest in discussing my personal preference of the background colors or whether or not the buffalo should be there. Rather, let’s talk about the facts. Let’s view the new license plate solely through the lens of fundamental design principles, because that’s precisely what it is: Design.

Principles of Design

Let me give you a quick overview of the design principles. The principles of design exist to give order and reason behind design decisions. While art can be primarily expressionistic and for purely aesthetic’s sake, design has another major role: function. Function is the overlooked step-sister that often gets forgotten behind the role of ‘pleasing to the eye’ while in reality, design is typically 80% function, especially when it comes to major communication systems such as roads and transportation. Did you know that transportation and signage design are a thing? There are specific guidelines and regulations so that when we’re traveling we have a good experience, we know where we’re going, and most importantly can read the signs in a quick and easy manner. The design principles help frame why certain decisions are made so that in the end, communication is at its best, even on the road.

The principles of design are as follows: Balance, proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast, and space. To achieve these principles, there are the elements of design: Line, shape, direction, size, texture, and color. Together, these elements let us create something consistent with the design principles to ultimately make a nice, functional design that meets the goal at hand.


ND Plate Design Analysis

For this, I’d like to set opinion completely aside, and take a look at these design elements and principles to see if the new North Dakota license plate holds up. After all, if we’re spending 6.8 million dollars on a complete license plate overhaul, it should go through some sort of review process right? Bonus Tip: Open the above image in a new tab for fast comparison.


“Balance provides stability and structure to a design. It’s the weight distributed in the design by the placement of your elements.” Let’s take a look at the placement of elements on the Sunset Plate.

The key numbers and letters feel as if they're above the center line of the plate making it very top-heavy. I double checked, and while they are placed centered vertically, the typeface chosen still makes it appear unbalanced to the human eye. No matter which specific typeface it might be, it can be described as narrow and tall which adds to this sense of unbalance. Ideally, there’d be an element to balance out the top text at the bottom of the plate underneath the main numbers and letters, but unfortunately, there’s nothing. If we look at the balance from left to right, we also find a very heavy right side as the buffalo outweighs the small “Peace Garden State” element on the left. The result of two dimensional imbalance, leaves the overall design feeling ‘off’ to the everyday viewer. Certainly, the law of balance was not considered in this design.


“Proximity creates relationship between elements. It provides a focal point. Proximity doesn’t mean that elements have to be placed together, it means they should be visually connected in some way.” What elements in the new license plate are connected? Or the greater question, what should be connected and isn’t? And what’s not connected and should be? To begin, ‘Legendary’ and ‘North Dakota’ are definitely showing relation to each other; however it reads backwards. Do we not say it “North Dakota Legendary” when we’re in normal conversation?

Secondly, the key letters and numbers are unarguably the focus point of the plate, which is exactly how it should be… but then why is there a buffalo awkwardly placed, directly below the last letter? They’re nearly touching when they’re completely two separate ideas. Nothing should ever distract from the focus point. Lastly, where does ‘Peace Garden State’ fit in? The design has left it buried in the corner like a kid in a time out. According to the law of proximity, it’s showing absolutely no relation to any of the other information on the plate.


Alignment allows us to create order and organization. Aligning elements allows them to create a visual connection with each other.” The main element in the plate design that contains alignment, is the text itself. Letters should be given proper space to breathe so that they’re easily read. (Remember the core purpose of what a license plate should be? Legible.) Unfortunately, ‘Legendary’ is significantly spread out making it hard to read, and then ‘North Dakota’ is terribly close to each other. (Not to mention, the awful serifs that make the typeface look like it’s from the wild west—oops, that's opinion, back to fact...)

With such a typeface selection (wait, what is a typeface?), space is required in between the letters for it to be read, and here it does not. The same thought can be placed on the even smaller, ‘Peace Garden State’ text that is barely seen on a computer screen let alone on the road. The principle of alignment was ignored in this design, and the legibility has suffered greatly because of it.


 “Repetition strengthens a design by tying together individual elements. It helps to create association and consistency.” Thankfully, there is one principle that this design contains! (Well, sort of) The wheat element on both sides of the plate are repeated and reflected to create a sense of repetition and balance. However, nothing else seems to be repeated as the colors are all across the board: white, black, brown, blue, yellow, and there’s too many different typefaces to feel any sense of unity or consistency. At least the design tried to accomplish a sense of repetition, here, right?


Contrast is the juxtaposition of opposing elements (For example, opposite colors on the color wheel, values from light to dark.) Contrast allows us to emphasize or highlight key elements in your design.” A portion of this new plate has a great sense of contrast, while the other part is quite awful in comparison. The top of the plate has a nice light blue background that creates room for the text on it to stand out. If only the text didn’t fail from alignment. The part in which the plate disappoints is the remainder of the background as the sunset gets far too dark for the letters to be read. The black even begins to fade as you move down the plate. I can’t imagine what this is going to look in the dark—how unfortunate. Legibility has suffered again, but this time at the hands of the principle of contrast.


“Space in art refers to the distance or area between, around, above, below, or within elements. Both positive and negative space are important factors to be considered in every design.” The principle of space is similar to the principle of balance as they naturally go hand-in-hand. When one is there, the other is too and vice versa. As we’ve already said, the balance is quite off in this plate as heavy elements aren’t balanced with the other small subtleties. This is partially because there isn’t negative space either between letters or objects, and in comparison, there’s a lack of elements where the plate does lend negative space, that is space that is empty or open (i.e. under the focal point).

Overall, if the plate was treated like a room layout, there’d be no where to walk in most areas, and then in some you’d be left with a great abyss of emptiness. According to the principle of space, this design was not successful.


How Does It Fit Within All The Other Plates?

Another aspect of design is a theory called the Gestalt Theory.The term Gestalt means 'unified whole', which is a good way of describing the overarching theme behind the principles: If you collect together your design elements in an arrangement using one of the approaches, your design will feel more connected, coherent and complete.” So when it comes to the gestalt of license plates, I wanted to compare the new North Dakota plate to every other state license plate in the United States. Are any others similar? How does it fit in?

Take a look for yourself:

What I found is that almost every other state plate contains vector/graphical elements rather than the new photorealistic painted background you see in the North Dakota plate. Kansas and South Carolina were the only other plates that had some sort of realistic background. Secondly, I reviewed the typeface of each state’s name. What I found is that typically, the state name is on top of the plate, and is either in a clean, simple typeface (Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, to name just a few) or made large enough so that it's easier to be read. In some cases, the name is in a script typeface (Tennessee, South Dakota, Montana, Illinois, California), but not one state contained the thick slab serif typeface that was chosen for our new plate.

For these two reasons, it seems as if our North Dakota plate is the black sheep of the entire country. When designing a piece that’s part of a greater whole, it’s essential to draw some consistencies, and unfortunately, yet again, this was either overlooked or completely ignored.


The Verdict

In conclusion, I think its very easy to say that this design has failed the test. And not in just one area, but nearly all the principles of design. The greatest tragedy of it all, is how legibility has been thrown out the window. The one core function of a license plate is to identify vehicles, but without proper legibility, what’s the point? If you can hardly read the new license plate text from a computer screen, how do you expect us to read it when we're 10 feet behind another vehicle on the road? What’s worse yet, is the fact that legibility wasn’t even identified as the main goal of the plate to begin with. This is a classic example of ‘designers’ choosing preference over function. Design cannot and should not be about what I like but rather what works.

What works is often found to be complemented by what looks good, but they cannot be reversed. So, why does this new design upset me? Not because I don’t like the gradient of the sunset colors or the fact that I can’t stand the disastrous typeface, but rather because it doesn’t function as it should. Everything and anything about the design screams that the principles of design weren’t even considered, and for that I am appalled. I’ve been apart of pro bono design projects that were given more thought, let alone spending 6.8 million dollars!


My Request

All frustration aside, my goal was to openly and unbiasedly, use the principles of design to measure the success of the new North Dakota license plate design. I think its safe to say that they weren't considered, and the design has failed. As a professional designer, I am shocked that no one in the field was consulted to be apart of this project, and I can only hope that in the future a designer is a part of the conversation. Please, please, please, give one of us a call. I completely understand that the average person doesn’t know about the design principles, so to put blame there, I cannot. But, when one doesn’t know, one should find someone that does, and in this case, they needed a designer.

What do you think? Please comment below for further discussion! 

Or, check out the North Dakota License Plate mockup I designed.