FUNNY BUSINESS: New plate options better than the 'Wander' years

April 16, 2007

The state of Indiana (For Sale Or Lease: Ask Mitch About A Privatization Plan To Suit You And Your Budget) came up with four proposed designs for license plates, and you know, they didn't look half bad. In fact, all four were fairly attractive.

Which, of course, leaves us to ask, "How did that happen?"

Let's face it: This state hasn't had a greatlooking license plate since ... well, ever. From the minimalist plates of my youth, blue and maroon with "Safety Pays" across the top, to today's different-plate-for-everyinterest-group smorgasbord, about the nicest thing you could say about Indiana's plates was that they did what they were supposed to-identify cars. From the back, anyway.

Of course, there were a few that went beyond the usual boring designs into the truly hideous. I speak of the fabled plates of the early 1980s, with their stripes of red, orange and yellow. They looked like the Houston Astros uniforms of the same era-which, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with Indiana. Still, the colors did look familiar to Hoosiers, seeing as how they resembled the Jell-O salads served at church suppers.

Later came an even goofier version, which followed the same design in a color scheme of yellow, green and red. And across the top it said "Wander," a weird imperative to direct at the person behind you at a stoplight. I suppose it could have been worse. "Scram," for example. Or, "www.IN.gov."

I sort of liked the sunset plate of a few years back, the one with the farm outlined against a salmon-colored sky (although I always thought it needed a basketball goal), but I was quick to join the chorus that greeted our current plate, the green-and-blue number with the Web site on the bottom, with a heartfelt, "Good Lord, that's ugly."

I really can't say that about this new crop of potential plates. These things actually have some style. I like the fact that they take a design cue from the state flag (also known to trivia fans as the flag of Gotham City in the first Michael Keaton "Batman" movie).

My preference is for the dark blue one with the torch and stars off to the left, but I also like the one (below) where the enlargement of the torch leans in at precisely the same angle as a high school senior in a 1964 yearbook photo.

I could also live quite happily with the other two-the one with the torch as part of a light-blue-and-yellow background, fading gradually to white as the eye moves left to right, or the one with the state seal on it. (You know, I've always been kind of curious about that seal. It shows a guy chopping down a tree while a buffalo runs past, and the guy looks like he doesn't even care. What kind of frontiersman is that? No wonder we don't have buffalo here anymore. They all got bored and headed west.)

Now, the new plates do have some design elements of which I am not fond, namely the use of county names at the top of the plate, and a three-number, three-letter identifying system like you see in other states. I like the old formula: a prefix indicating the county, followed by a letter, followed by more digits.

Growing up here, I soon learned that license plate numbers established pecking order. This goes back to the days when the Bureau of Motor Vehicles was highly political (I know, hard to believe) and you always knew the county chairman of the party in power by his single-digit license plate.

Just as important was knowing what the prefix meant-in other words, which county the car was from. I grew up in 44 (LaGrange), with 57 (Noble), 76 (Steuben) and 20 (Elkhart) nearby. This was extremely valuable information on Halloween when you were deciding which cars to egg. And for adults, it was a handy way to identify drivers whose skills you were calling into question: "What is that, a 14? Well, it figures. They all make those wide turns in Daviess County."

I'll miss the old prefixes, but I guess that's the price you pay for art. Besides, I know some things won't change, and when the new plates go into effect in 2008, dealing with the BMV will continue to be everyone's favorite way to interact with state government, as it has been since the days of the Safety Pays plate.

Which was a big fib, by the way. If safety really paid, they would have privatized it by now.

Redmond is an author, columnist and speaker, and a consultant on business writing and workplace issues. His column appears monthly. You can reach him at mredmond@ibj.com.
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