PROVIDENCE – Tyler Smith gets to see his work every time he gets on the road in Rhode Island: He designed the iconic “Wave” license plate.
He does not like any of the five finalists that could replace it.
“It’s sort of like clip art,” Smith said. “That’s what all those things made me think of. Someone clipped a little lighthouse and put a lighthouse in.”
The state unveiled five finalists for the next standard license plate in Rhode Island on Monday, and opened it up to voting by the public. The state hasn’t updated its place since Smith’s design was rolled out in the mid-1990s. Many people were unimpressed by the options to replace it, and took to social media to critique them. Some asked why the state couldn’t just keep the “Wave” plate, which Smith designed two and a half decades ago.
“I get a lot of feedback that people love the wave plate,” Smith said. “It’s got a lot of accolades.”
A RISD graduate and artistic director, Smith came up with a design that echoed a famous Japanese design of a breaking wave, while taking up the whole plate as a canvas. Then-Gov. Lincoln Almond asked him whether they could do the wave breaking, so you could see the foam.
“I said, well, you know, Governor, all due respect, that’s a cartoon,” Smith recalled. “That becomes a cartoon. It’s not like an icon or a logo.”
Almond agreed. And this one wasn’t a contest; it was an announcement from the state in 1996. Here is your new plate.
The plate was a little unusual, Smith said, but once people got used to it, they loved it. The design succeeds because it left some to the imagination: It wasn’t so much of a wave but a symbol of a wave. It looks best on a low-numbered plate, with three or four digits, Smith said. That abstraction is something that the new designs unveiled Monday are missing. Smith said they were heavy-handed.
“Instead of being something abstract, they’re trying to do literal things like lighthouses and stuff like that,” Smith said. “It’s just a little more interesting if you can sort of suggest something, rather than picturing it literally.”
Smith said the one with the bridge at the bottom and italic font on top was “not bad,” but didn’t need the lighthouse in the bottom left corner.
Smith submitted two designs of his own for this latest contest. He worked together with graphic designer Terri Morris to implement the designs. One of his is a refresh of his iconic design.
“It symbolizes, rather than depicts it,” Smith said.
But he was not chosen as a finalist.
He lives in Tiverton, so he has his own Wave plates. When he has to turn it in for the winner, he plans on keeping his Waves as a keepsake.
Brian Amaral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.