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Graphic design professors unimpressed by RI license plate choices

The five design finalists each have their good points, but they all underscore a fear of change. “I would argue these are all really conservative and really similar,” one professor said.

The five finalists in the contest to create a new license plate for Rhode Island were unveiled on Monday.Brian Amaral

PROVIDENCE — When Governor Dan McKee and the state Division of Motor Vehicles unveiled the five finalists out of 940 submissions to replace Rhode Island’s standard “Wave” license plate on March 14, the reaction from the online peanut gallery was pretty negative.

But Twitter can be a pretty negative place, to say nothing of the comments sections of newspapers. What about the professionals? The people who teach graphic design at Rhode Island’s colleges, or do it professionally? What did they have to say about the designs?

They were more constructive. But not much better.

“They’re incredibly safe, incredibly conservative,” said John Caserta, an associate professor who teaches graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design. “Which makes me want to ask questions about the process. Who’s narrowing those down? There’s certainly a fear of change, but I would argue these are all really conservative and really similar.”


“If I had assigned this task to my students and had them follow the criteria the DMV set out, I would have made them redo the designs,” said Karyn Jimenez-Elliott, a Johnson & Wales University associate graphic design professor. “Because they don’t follow the criteria of what the client asked.”

When asked to identify her favorite out of the five, Nikki Juen, an assistant professor of graphic design at Roger Williams University, paused for a few seconds.

“Hmm,” she said finally. “Tyler Smith’s.”

Smith is the creator of the “Wave” plate, which was unveiled in 1996 and has been on Rhode Island cars ever since. Keeping the 26-year-old “Wave” plate is not one of the five options, of course, but Juen did not feel there was a standout pick out of the five, even though she could see some merit in each of them. If she had submitted a design, she might have gone with a design recognizing the state’s Indigenous people.


One of the five finalists in the contest to design the state’s primary license plates.Rhode Island DMV

But that’s the thing: The state did not pay any graphic designers to help pick out a new plate. Instead, an internal group of DMV and McKee office officials narrowed down the list of 940 submissions to five options. Then, on Monday, they opened it up to the public for voting.

That sort of process, Juen said, is how you get Boaty McBoatface. It might be a funny name for a British research vessel. But people might not be so enthused about Platey McPlateface.

“They wouldn’t farm out their legal decisions to Rhode Islanders and then out of 900 submissions decide what legal action would be taken,” Juen said. “Or, ‘I have broken leg. I’ll see if people can tell me how to fix it.’ It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The graphic design experts interviewed for this story each had critiques of the individual plates themselves: typography issues, similarities to other states (Pennsylvania or New Jersey), too many images crammed into one small canvas, or just plain plain. They did not seem to match the bold character of Rhode Island. While the state said it wanted to get away from the “Wave,” two of them had waves anyway. The choices seemed to suggest an aversion to risk and change.

“The Division of Motor Vehicles would like to thank all participants who submitted the 940 designs for consideration,” said Paul Grimaldi, a spokesman for the DMV’s parent agency, the Department of Revenue, in an e-mail. “We urge people to keep in mind that the five designs selected were submitted by their fellow Rhode Islanders. We appreciate that people have varying opinions and preferences and encourage people to vote for their favorite.”


Some Rhode Islanders would prefer not to change at all. The state has a law on the books calling for new license plates every 10 years. And the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, while recommending states reissue plates every 10 years, doesn’t recommend they actually be redesigned. In other words, under those guidelines, they could just be a new, easier-to-see, clean version of the same 10-year-old plate.

So why not keep the “Wave”? Proponents say swapping out the design from time to time will help identify which cars are on the road without the proper registration, inspection, or insurance, which will make everyone safer and help bring in more revenue.

But why is change even necessary when Rhode Island already had the iconic “Wave”? Jim De Luizo, partner at the firm Morris + De Luzio, likened it to the iconic “I Love NY” graphic.

“For officials to want to change this is, to put it politely, short-sighted — to put it bluntly, just plain stupid,” De Luizo said.

The plates also each had their good points, some of the experts said. And Caserta pointed out that people often react to redesigns angrily, whether it’s a new newspaper layout or a Facebook interface. Then people get used to it.


The designers took issue with the process for picking the plates, saying the state would have been better off hiring pros somewhere along the way, even if it still kept the public voting elements.

One of the five finalists in the contest to design the state’s primary license plates.Rhode Island DMV

Jimenez-Elliott, for her part, submitted her own design, doing what she thought the DMV wanted — high contrast, something that broke from the “Wave” — but it didn’t make the final cut.

“I know I was part of the contest, but after truly thinking about things, I feel that there was fault in having this be a contest at all,” Jimenez-Elliott said. “Graphic design is a profession, and just like I tell my students when they are applying to internships, their time and skillset should be valued, and they should be paid.”

Caserta, the RISD professor, has worked with students to come up with what he calls a treatise against design contests, titled simply, “Against Contests.” Some people who design for a living view contests as an attack on them. States don’t generally resort to contests for murals or road signs or parks, Caserta said.

“Whether it’s a state emblem or a movie or a mural, it requires experience and knowledge to come up with the next big hit,” Caserta said.

Of course, there’s a history in Rhode Island of Rhode Islanders hating the way the state advertises itself. The “Cooler & Warmer” catchphrase and logo cost the state $500,000 in 2016. As it happens, it was designed by the same person who did I Love NY. It was an utter fiasco.


Six years later, signs of discontent for the new license plate design started to emerge quickly. At a State House news conference Monday unveiling the five choices, WPRO’s Steve Klamkin asked DMV administrator Walter R. “Bud” Craddock about the very early reception on social media.

“The initial response is a few people,” Craddock said. “Let’s see what the majority of the state says.”

And for people who like the possibility of change, there’s good news: As of the end of the day Thursday, people had submitted 61,294 votes online expressing a preference for one of the five plates.

Brian Amaral can be reached at Follow him @bamaral44.