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Are Texas' New License Plates Catering to Hipsters?

Texas license plates are receiving a retro makeover.

Called the “Texas Classic,” the new plate is decidedly basic: white with black text, the Texas star, a state silhouette and “Lone Star State” emblazoned at the bottom.

Many of those design decisions are driven by security: The Texas Classic has bigger letters and a new pattern – letters and numbers group together instead of interspersed – which makes for easier reading. There are also two anti-counterfitting threads embedded into the plates.

But there’s something about the monochromatic design that goes beyond security. With its throwback design, the plate arguably falls into the realm of “hipster branding.”

On the Tumblr blog of the same name, "Hipster Branding," designer Dave Spengeler reimagines logos for large brands – IKEA and Gillette, to name a few – in a satirically sparse fashion. “I’m fed up with the latest design trend,” he’s quoted as saying on another design blog. “Everything has to be ‘vintage’ style, type has to be centered, all-caps, or written calligraphically. … Slowly but surely these cliches are getting overused.”

For a real-world example, design blog “Brand New” points to the logo for the NBA's new Brooklyn Nets as “painfully close” to Spengeler’s work, but ultimately applauds “the renegade simplicity and the choice of black and white.”

So where do Texas’ new plates land on the design continuum?

Credit DJ Stout
Designer DJ Stout applauds Texas' new plates; years ago, he proposed similarly simple plates for the state.

“I’ve been a graphic designer for over 30 years, so I tend towards simplicity and designs that have functionality in mind, that aren’t just purely decorative,” says DJ Stout, one of the partners at Pentagram, an international design firm with offices in Austin.

Years ago, Stout  redesigned Texas plates himself while on assignment for GQ Magazine. He came up with a similarly basic black and white design.

“I don’t really see that as a trend,” he says. “To me, this is a much needed direction for the state to take on the license plates. It’s about time – it’s about time the state of Texas got to this point … They weren’t intended to be art, they’re just merely serial numbers of identification purposes, you know.”

Marc Ferrino agrees. He’s the design director at Austin-based advertising firm GSD&M.

“First of all, I think a license plate is the place to be simple,” he says. “I think it should be functional, practical, and all those things before it should be heavily designed … Personally, I think a license plate should be as boring as a street sign.”

"If it means being basic and simple on the license plate, and it's because the hipsters came up with it, then God bless the hipsters."- GSD&M Design Director Marc Ferrino

Like Stout, Ferrino also has a skeptical take on so-called hipster branding.

“I don’t buy into that,” he says. “For some reason, maybe it’s hipper to be vintage. I don’t know – I’m the furthest from hip.” Still, Ferrino says the simplified plate is a welcome respite from the tendency to overdesign. (Consider the 2000s-era Texas plate design featuring oil rigs, a space shuttle, the silhouette of a cowboy and more.)

“I think that we can sometimes overdo things,” Ferrino says. “And if it means being basic and simple on the license plate – and it’s because the hipsters came up with it – then God bless the hipsters.”

The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles has been sending the new plates out to all Texas counties, which have to exhaust their stash of the old plates first. Citizens can keep their current license plates until their mandatory seven-year replacement. 

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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