Ranking the Best and Worst License Plates

The license plate game is the quest to find all 50 state plates in one road trip. As a kid, my dad would play this game on every trip we took. During the times I sat shotgun,  I remember being ready to cross another state off the list as soon as we saw a new plate. This was always fun and exciting for me as I have always been a bit of a political geography junkie.

In my possession was also a road trip activity book that included a section on the license plates.  I could name most of them without seeing the states name. So my experiences as a kid coupled with my graphic design background, have allowed me to create the following criteria for quality license plates:

  1. Readability: This is simple enough. Can you read the number on the plate? Is the font choice acceptable? If an Amber Alert is posted, will you be able to ID the perp by the plate or will they escape to another state? After all, design is first and foremost about function. And a license plate’s primary function is to allow for the identification of any vehicle.
  2. State Reflection: Does the plate reflect the character of the state? Also, is the slogan on the plate reflective of the actual state. For example, Ohio’s plate calls the state the Birthplace of Aviation. This bothers me because the first flight occurred in North Carolina. Granted the Wright Brothers were from Ohio, but they had to leave the state to fly. That’s a red flag to me, despite Ohio’s decent new look.
  3. Praise / Embarrassment factor: Is your state better viewed because of your license plate? Do you want to drive your car out of state with the plate? For a lot of people, all they will ever see of your state is the license plate. Does it give a good impression? Does your car’s value drop because the plate is so ugly?

Ranking the State’s Plates

Without further ado here are my top five and worst five state plates. For reference here are a couple of sites that show the main plate from each state. This site has a list up to date to 2010 & this is an ugly, yet up to date site that allows you to see the plates of the past 20 years.

Top Five State License Plates

(Starting with the best. If the image isn’t displayed, I couldn’t find one with the appropriate rights to post for the web. Just click the link provided.)

1. California: It’s readable, the script for California reflects the state, and it makes your car much cooler for simply having it on it. 3/3 on the criteria. Well done California. Don’t change a thing!

2. Alabama: I think better of Alabama after seeing their new plates. The background of the plate is well designed and the text is readable. Also you can see their progression, and how unexpected this well designed plate is.

3. New Mexico: It’s too bad New Mexicans don’t make it up to the upper Midwest more often, because they have a nice plate. But can you blame them for not wanting to visit? The plate fits the state. I also appreciate that they added USA to the plate to not confuse an ignorant motorist who may have thought they were from Ole Mexico.

4. Colorado: New Mexico’s neighbor to the north has a fine plate themselves. I kind of think its tough to have a clean silhouette of anything, but Colorado manages this with the mountains. This plate also makes passing motorists jealous that they aren’t in the Colorado Rockies.

5. Hawaii: The rarest of all plates to see on the mainland would be a treat to see indeed. This plate has a retro feel with the use of the condensed font in the numbering. I can imagine it complimenting beach going vehicles like woodies and convertibles very easily.

10 Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order. See this list for photos): Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska (the new one), North Carolina (the actual first in flight), Ohio (just give up the slogan), South Carolina, and Washington.

Bottom Five State License Plates

(Starting with the worst. If the image isn’t displayed, I couldn’t find one with the appropriate rights to post for the web. Just click the link provided.)

1. Washington DC: Okay, so it’s not a state, but this is one ugly plate. If that weren’t enough there’s one thing that stands out like none other: the slogan “Taxation without Representation.” What is funny is that DC residents pay Federal taxes without representation in either house of Congress. And this is precisely why the slogan appears on the plate. Yet, I contend that plates should be politics free, even in DC. (For the record, this is despite my personal belief that DC should be represented in the House of Representatives, along with all of our territories). Unfortunately, my gut is also telling me this slogan would be lost on the average American. Sorry DC, but ugly font choices plus a political statement that is confusing to non-DC’ers equals the worst plate.

2. Connecticut: This plate is a classic case of a gradient gone wrong. Throw in the use of Times New Roman and you’ve got one hideous plate. I remember seeing this plate on an Audi a couple of weeks ago and it just ruined the look (and subsequent value) of the entire car. Connecticut has the third highest median income out of all states, so the number of luxury vehicles driving around is probably higher than in most states. Its too bad these vehicles are hard to appreciate with that plate on them.

3. Indiana: Come on Indiana, your plate is becoming steadily uglier by the progression. Please revert back to your 2000 version. That’s at least a top 10 plate.

4. Texas: The most recent Texas plate is unfortunate for this reason, its too busy. When I think of Texas I think of its size, its flag, and its simplicity. This should lead to a nice plate. If you see its “Red Texas” plate from 1991-1994, you see it works much better than its current plate. Here’s my advice: Keep it clean, keep it focused, keep it simple.

5. New York: Home of Madison Ave and the fashion industry. It is the center of the design universe and we get that for a plate? The curve is ghastly and the colors are wrong. It just doesn’t feel like New York. I’m really just disappointed its not better with all of the design talent inside the states borders.

10 Dishonorable Mentions (in alphabetical order. See this list for photos): Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

22 Responses to Ranking the Best and Worst License Plates

  1. kortknee

    having been part of this journey with you…and mind you still playing it just saturday with dad in dbq none the less…i like where you took this blog. i actually…SIT DOWN FOR THIS…agree with you.

    if i have to turn around and catch your plate by pushing a brother out of the way or look in a mirror…it’s not a good plate!! and if i can’t read it fast enough or look at i in plain sight and know what state it is to beat dad to the claim…it sucks!! michigan is right there with california…blue and easy to read. i don’t like iowa’s…however it does depict the state correctly.

  2. Brandon

    @kortknee: Come on, I’m sure we can find more common ground than just license plates, but I have to disagree with your choosing of Michigan so highly. That font is bad news. Anyway thanks for the comment!

  3. luke

    I’m pretty sure that D.C. has 3 representatives in Congress…

    • It’s true DC has a representative in Congress but s/he doesn’t have a vote, and that’s the issue.

  4. susan hundt

    Dad wants you to know that on recent trip to South Dakota we got 48 !!! missing was the ever elusive Hawaii and West Virginia (guess they don’t have enough money to leave)

  5. UR-RU

    I’m surprised NJ isn’t one of your bottom five. It looks like a white plate with a really bad smog stain.

  6. Dennis Taylor

    I live in Colorado and I like the design of the plates, but the font is just terrible. The limited example above only shows two characters; some of the others, like the number 5 and the 8 are plain ugly.

    • Brandon

      @dennis – I’ll be sure to look closer at the numbers!

  7. Sam

    The state of Texas listened to you, but possibly took it too far. Our new plates are white with black lettering and almost no flourishes.

    • Brandon

      Sam, Thanks for the heads up on the new Texas plates. I had not seen them yet. While it is not spectacular and is a bit boring, they are better. I’m sure in a revised rankings they will be out of the bottom 5!

      Thanks for reading.

  8. Rob

    Brandon, with respect to Ohio’s plate, I just wanted to say it actually reads “Birthplace of Aviation” – not “First in Flight”. 😉

    • Thanks Rob. I suppose it doesn’t help its hard to read.

  9. mark

    I disagree with your choosing of indiana have you seen the new 2013 in god we trust plates very popular here

    • Mark, I wrote this post in 2011. So that’s why Indiana doesn’t appear. Although, I’ll concede its time for me to start planning for an updated ranking to incorporate new designs!

      Thanks for reading.

  10. alcimeire

    Utah’s is really horrible. And personally, I think the 2000 version of Indiana’s plate is pretty bad too. I like the current better. That gold Indiana with all the stars coming off of it or whatever is ridiculous and distracting. I don’t mind Wisconsin’s, Alaska’s, or Arkansas’s that much, but Georgia, Florida, and Iowa are all atrocious.

    • Thanks for your thoughts alcimeire!

  11. Ricardo

    New York’s liscence plates are a daily testiment of the boneheads we have elected as governer. The 2010 Gold and Blue hiddeous redesign of our tags was just one part of a rediculous plan by ex-governer Patterson (Who was ironically going blind by the way) to force everyone to re-register our cars. Fourtunatly most of his plan went out the window but unfourtantly the plates stayed. So now there are two types of tags on the street, cars registered before 2010 get to keep the iconic blue and white designs from 2000(which dissapearing) and eveyone else gets screwed with the mix match of blue and gold.

    But boy do I miss my old plates. They where blue and white. On the top they had illistrations of Niagra Falls, the Upstate mountain ranges, the Hudson Valley and the skyscrapers of Manhattan with the word’s “THE EMPIRE STATE” written very bold and confidently on the bottom. Gave me something decent to look at while stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. I also liked the plates from the 90s where they where just white with the Statue of Liberty in the middle but those days are long gone.

    • Thank you @Ricardo for your thoughtful reply! I agree that any previous New York state plate is better than the current one.

  12. i live in new jersey and i think it is one of the worst plates i’ve ever seen. i saw on a road to to south carolina almost all of them including alaska

  13. Sassenach

    Would you be able to tell me which font and size is used for the last two New York State license plates, pre- and post-2010.
    Thank you.

  14. Wow! This is very useful page. I enjoyed to read this. I am sure, It help us so much. Thanks.

  15. Michael Otterman

    the wright brothers were ohioan

Submit a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *