“I don’t hate America, I just hate bad design.”

New Maryland License Plate

Those who said they preferred the old black-and-white plate were unimpressed with the new rendition. (Courtesy of The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration)

Seriously, Maryland… WTF?

If Francis Scott Key was overwhelmed by the majesty of bombs bursting in air while the flag was still there 196 years ago, many people seemed less captivated by a depiction of that moment that debuted Monday as Maryland’s standard-issue license plate.

The plate shows Old Glory flying over Fort McHenry as a couple of bombs explode to the right and left of a top title “Maryland,” the words “War of 1812” directly beneath it and a bottom line with the Web site of the 1812 bicentennial commission. Never mind that Key penned his poem in 1814.

License-plate critics are neither a professional nor an organized group, but they know what they like. An entirely unscientific poll on The Washington Post’s Web site found that 86 percent of respondents were unimpressed. Eight percent thought the new plate was beautiful.

“We looked at the poll,” said Bill Pencek, director of the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. “It’s a great country. Everybody is entitled to their opinion.”

Those who said they would prefer to stay with the old black-and-white plate, the standard since 1986, were unimpressed with the new rendition, which shows the flag waving above two brick structures that might have been factories or school buildings, as well as Fort McHenry.

“The design is directly taken from the way the ramparts looked,” Pencek said.

Then he went on to explain how it was selected and the political nuances that must be considered when changing a license plate.

The state commission, which Pencek directs, approached the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration about creating a license plate that would draw attention to the coming bicentennial.

At the same time, the commission had hired a design consultant to create a multipurpose logo for the bicentennial and the related Star-Spangled Banner Trail, which is operated by the National Park Service.

“There was a sort of method to the madness,” Pencek said. “We didn’t want to have 15 different looks, depending on the application. We were trying to brand the flag.”

There was another issue when it came to the plate.

The standard-issue plate competes with two other Maryland plates that each cost an additional $20 initially and $10 more each year. One shows a great heron and the other a farm scene. The additional charges support the Chesapeake Bay Trust and the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation.

Although many people purchase license plates to help fund the organizations’ efforts, there are those who order plates just because they like the way it looks.

If the standard-issue 1812 plate were the most beautiful of the three, it could cost the bay trust and agricultural foundation much-needed money.

“We didn’t want to compete with the other background plates,” Pencek said. “There was an intention to be beautiful, but not more beautiful than the bay plate or the farm plate.”

The 1812 plate will be issued as standard — no added charges — until 2015, when the black-and-white model will return.

People who have the black-and-white plates can retain them and transfer them to newly purchased vehicles.

This is a big effin’ deal. Thankfully, Robb Preis (not a friend) is on the case:

Despite all of the serious problems in the world, our country and our state, please allow me complain about something of very little importance but which is still incredibly irritating. Who in the hell approved the new Maryland license plates? For over a decade our state has had one of the best looking and arguably the most tasteful standard license plates in the county. No silly sayings like Idaho’s “Famous Potatoes” or trite pictures like the off-center lobster declaring Maine as “Vacationland.”

Now Maryland is to have this garish red, white and blue tag, complete with flag, walled fort, bombs bursting in air, an acknowledgment of the always topical War of 1812, and a poorly named web address. And the artistic design? It looks like it is page ripped from a second grade coloring book or maybe a computer graphic from 1985.

Don’t we have enough celebration of wars past and nationalistic flag waving to prove the we are proud of are country yet? Just look outside any car dealer, gas station or bank, not to mention on the lapel of any politician who has made a public gaffe or been caught having an affair. Besides most people who want flags on their cars already have three or four flag decals (ever notice that one isn’t enough?) and a magnetic ribbon or two adorning their trunk.

Finally, people spend a fortune buying a car that designers have labored over to make it aesthetically pleasing from every angle. Car buyers often lose sleep and bother their friends asking for opinions on whether they should buy their new vehicle in brilliant white pearl, metallic platinum frost, or moonlight alabaster sparkle. Well, now it won’t matter as much because every new car in Maryland will look like it has a big 4th of July pie eating contest winner’s ribbon on each bumper.

And oh, I don’t hate America, I just hate bad design.

[Sidenote: I actually like Maine’s lobster plate. Then again, I love anything New England and crustacean.] Mr. Preis put it in proper perspective. Is it the biggest problem Maryland faces? Not hardly. But it’s the worst-designed license plate I’ve seen… almost ever. And that includes this.

In conclusion: Robb Preis, you are my new hero.


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