The Decline of the Illinois License Plate Design

August 8, 2017 | by Todd Pierce

I remember going to my grandparents’ farm as a child. There, my grandpa had a collection of all the license plates he had ever owned on showcase in the garage. When asking him why there were so many, he informed me that when he was growing up people were issued new plates every year, crazy huh?

I am sure by now you have started to notice that Illinois has been issuing new license plates. If not, you will soon enough. Did you know that it has been more than 15 years since Illinois changed the state’s license plate design? Yeah, its been that long. Some states have laws requiring a new license plate every five to 10 years. Looks like someone in Springfield missed that memo.

The reason for the overdue change is due to rusting issues with the existing ones. However, I’d like to think it’s because good ole Honest Abe was tired of being covered up. Either way, it was time for an update.


Illinois License Plate Design


So this got me thinking… license plates have been changing more or less constantly since there were cars to put them on and all these redesigns can’t be due to rusting, so what is the reason for all the previous changes? What I found out was that from very early on, states use license plates for self-promotional advertising that is sometimes clever, usually simple and occasionally downright funny. For instance, Maine was the first state to implement a motto (Vacationland) and now, thanks to Maine, most plates on the road have a state motto somewhere.

Although I agree with the idea that a license plate is a moving billboard for a state and that states want to try and entice new visitors, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw the kitchen sink at the design. What’s wrong with the “vintage” style where simplicity was key? Isn’t the overall goal, aside from promoting the state, for law enforcement to easily identify important information?

Take the new Illinois design. Yes, with just a few characters, like “NEW 1,”  it’s easily legible, but once you use any more characters the red of the lettering starts to blend into Abe’s black jacket and the whole license plate design gets pretty muddy.


License Plate Design

License Plate Design


The next question that came to me when thinking about the new plates was, why are there so many different designs and why do they seem to be getting worse and worse? In the state of Illinois alone, there are currently more than 100 specialty license plates available, donning everything from the colors and logos of professional sports teams to universities to designs representing all manner of special causes.


Illinois License Plate Design

Just a sample of all Illinois’ specialty plates.


I am all for choices but lets get real. I’ve seen dozens of different specialty plates on the road in my lifetime. The designs are often just plain hard to read. Take a look at Autism Awareness or Education. You cant even read that it says Autism Awareness with all the puzzle pieces, and the giant Red apple in the middle of the Education plate makes it extremely difficult to read the middle characters from a distance (and those are the most important ones).

After looking through a handful of these over designed, slightly to extremely illegible plates, it made me long for the days where I would admire the simplicity of all my grandpa’s plates and the memories each one brought back to him.

The license plate was once a thing of beauty, where simplicity reigned supreme. Utilizing simple colors and limited symbols that clearly represented the state was so much more appealing and probably functional, too. Next time we go through a license plate design overhaul in Illinois, maybe we should look back to the old days for inspiration. Where is Doc and his DeLorean when you need him, am I right?



What do you think of Illinois’ new license plates? If you’re not from Illinois, how does your state’s plates stack up? Give us a shout in the comments and let us know.

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