Category Archives: mapping United States

Mapping License Plates/Maps in License Plates

The politicization of the design of these most common designators of place on cars, the license plate, is hardly surprising.  After all, the rise of the proprietorial sense of designing ones own plates is not a far jump to that of viewing the format of the license plats as if this designation of plate were not forms of public writing.  Even without considering the broad notion of what sort of writing this constitutes, the readiness to treat license plate design as an avenue for freedom of speech as a form of expression reveals a pronounced shift not only in the aesthetics but in the use and construction of license plate design in the past.

For during the past twenty years, we have come to identify the content of one’s plates as transcends a tag of where one’s from, taking it as an occasion to raise state revenues and provide vanity illustrations of individualization on the highway and driveway at considerable costs.  Perhaps it is worth asking how this relates not only to freedom of expression, but to our sense of place.  It is perhaps on account of the massive growth of graphic designers and graphic arts, as well as the ease of printing airbrush designs on metallic surfaces, that the license plate, that modest of all surfaces, has recently become something of an advertisement–along the lines of U-Haul moves; the images on license plates have become evocative landscapes that almost embed viewers in their content, depicting a sense of place that seems more alluring than neutrally mapped.  Indeed, the growth of new landscape icons on the license plates that are seen on the road seems to have inspired the coterie of graphic designers at Ars Tecnica to assign an award for the “ugliest license plate” to appear, at the start of the new millenium.

The call to action was in response to the proliferation of digitized plates in what once was a stable signifier of location and regional provenance.  Beyond being a form of taxonomic classification, or an add-on for vehicle registration, the personalization of plates have brought a search to capture the essence of place of partly nauseating kitsch–












–that summons the struggle for place to still exist in a post-map world, as much as it conjures a sense of place that we might really recognize, as if an affective image that tries to appeal to the state’s residents, but is removed from the geographical map.

Indeed, despite the radically limited cartographical content of the raised state pictured on the New York State license plate, a considerable effort was invested in affirming the iconic centrality of the state, even it it is a barely recognizable or distinguished blob of paint when raised metal when at close hand.  TO be sure, New York license plate design is distinguished by its ability to comprehend a broad geographic unity, and functions as a mapping as an illusion shrinking the geographical distances between, say, Niagara Falls and Manhattan in a somewhat short-lived attempt to spread across the economically and culturally quite diverse state–




–but relies on the map, as if an atrophied remained, as a hyphen between alphanumeric license numbers.  Although these dramatically reduced maps serve but as tokens, to offer a visual pause between digits, numbers, or letters, have lost the geographic identifying functions for most states, the token placement of small, raised maps in several northeast states–New York; New Jersey; Connecticut; and, to an extent, but in a different fashion, Pennsylvania–suggests a survival of the cartographical as a remainder of which some states are not ready to let go or consign to the dustbin of history, even in an age of GPS and digitized maps.  Not really a visual fetish, but a designator of place, distinguished by an exaggerated appendix of Long Island, the New York image is no doubt the most familiar and recognizable, even if its edges are quite abstractly smoothed so that they provide little resemblance to an actual map, which is reduced to a mere token.


NY state blip on license plate.png


While the map is paired by a similar centrality of New Jersey in license plates in the greater metropolitan area–and in the image of the ‘keystone state’ that is used to punctuate Pennsylvania plates, the diminished centrality of the map in license plates suggests a certain sense of loss, and a sense of bolstering the symbolic meaning of the map.




Is there a lack of place that plagues the range of new digitized images that adorn plates with a notional sense of place, something often borrowed form a tourist brochure than a map, a sort of eye candy for the road–




–betrays a sense of a lack of place, as they evoke a purely decorative field that seems in its generic nature removed from place.

The new connotative images of place that decorate license plates exist at a considerable remove from the weight that the form of the map once organized.  Their prominent presence across an unending proliferation of license plate designs seems an artifact of graphic designers and the expansion of abilities of digital printing on metal surfaces, or a conjunction of the two that have effectively diminished the longstanding centrality of maps as a record of where the driver hails from.



maine licence plate





Indeed, in an age of constant geographic mobility of many, notwithstanding an increasingly evident decline of actual geographic mobility in regions of the USA over time of some note–



Source: U.S. Census Bureau

the lack of interest in the map as a designator of place of origin is pronounced, perhaps reveals an increasingly parochial pride in localism.  But it seems related to a declining authority of the symbolic form of the static map, in an age when everyone is their own cartographer on Google Maps and Bing, and the former fixity of the state map seems a less stable designator–and of far less interesting visual interest.  Despite a far greater shift toward the movement of populations to southern climes in the lower forty eight–



City Lab: Growth of Urban Populations, 1970-2000


The relation is somewhat mirrored in the growth of southern cities, although we still see considerable growth as well across the country’s regions–


Net Migration USA.pngCity Lab/Eric Jaffe


–which Richard Florida has cast in a far smaller year spread of 2012-3 as focussed in its largest metro areas.



lead_large-1.pngRichard Florida/Marin Prosperity/City Lab


Does the recent shift to the cities find a reflection in the bucolic image of the countryside, increasingly out of reach, which has made a huge comeback in license plate design?  While generic in design, the landscape that stands in for a map, depicting a relation to place as a scenic background with no actual specificity.  The corollary to this new style for designating site of registration is the effective symbolic demotion of maps from the field of vision offered in a license plate.  For a map nerd, this shift of visual registers seems dangerously close to an emptying of meaning, and a reflection of a broader devaluation of the cartographical sensibility long part of the aesthetic of American license plate design.  If such a shift relates to the material practices of printing with colored inks and half-tones, the new aesthetic of place in license plates seems one of an interchangeable background, less tied to local jurisdictions than to  conjuring an affective relation to place.




The shift in the digitized design of license plates is somewhat striking if one confines oneself only to its emergence as an almost affective relation to a local landscape at the same time as we have witnessed a growing homogenization of most environments.  Indeed, the generic western landscape of Arizona, much as an inviting image of Utah’s arches–


Utah Plate.png


or the mountainous northwestern state of Washington and its snow-capped peaks–


Washington Plate



–which don’t really only suggest ways of raising consciousness about environmental degradation and chances for the survival of landscape in an age of environmental pollution and global climate change.  For on a symbolic level, they surely most sharply contrast to the conservative declaration of origin in the license plates of generations back when license plate design wasn’t an area of work covered in the state budget, and when iconic maps had semiotic centrality in the license plate’s field of vision.  Indeed, the current offer of “choice” as a measure of individual expression, that can be selected online–


Personalize yours!.png


–seems but a logical if not a necessary extension of the rise of such promotional plates that approach advertisements of locality, in place of a line-drawn map.  The obsolescence of the map, indeed, as a simple flat polygon, seems to have occasioned its replacement by a dynamic landscape, just as the decline of map-reading has made the landscape far more interactive.

To be sure, we now locate one another online in how we stream information or locate ourselves in information webs or economies of information that define a filter bubble–




–but the problem of mapping place in license plates seems most overwhelmed by the resurgence of the license plate as a field of individual expression, the emblem of the atomized society that goes bowling alone, as the vanity plate–and the creation of individualized messages that one forces all to read–has replaced a sense of geographical stability that was once not only tacitly shared, but inscribed for all to read on the backs of cars.


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Filed under Free Speech, Freedom of Speech, license plates, mapping United States