Nebraskans live by three truths.
The weather will disappoint. The Huskers will monopolize our time and money.
And the state’s license plate design will bring forth ritual lament.
Last week’s unveiling of the new 2017 license plate was no different. Teeth were gnashed. Garments were rent.
After Gov. Pete Ricketts unveiled it, the plate was instantly lambasted for its plain-Jane design, Michigan colors and State Capitol Sower who, depending on your perspective, is sowing more than grain. The rabble exploded on social media with a collective: ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
All this for a lousy piece of metal that serves solely to make life easier for meter attendants and cops.
So why does a license plate, of all things, provoke a statewide existential crisis? Why on earth do we care?
“It’s just identity,” explained John White, a retired state trooper and a license plate aficionado. “Your plate represents who you are to some degree. And where you come from.”
Plus, says Omaha designer Drew Davies, there is universal interest in the license plate because it is so ... universal. We have to have one. We see it every day. And we put it on one of our most expensive possessions, literally attaching it to our automobile, which has a deep connection to the American psyche.
That’s why it’s so hard to get a license plate that feels right.
For Nebraskans, whose egos are already bruised by outsiders’ perceptions of our geography and importance, a license plate — or state quarter — can take on extra weight.
We don’t want our license plate to prove the Nebraska stereotype true: That we are “flyover country.” (Not even the cranes stay.) That we’re just an Interstate 80 pass-through with no mountains or oceans, no real defining symbol.
And while some Nebraskans want to move beyond icons of our pioneer past, such as wagons and windmills, we can’t seem to agree on something unifying for the present.
Some states have used their symbols to great effect. Think of the iconic Colorado plate with its white-on-green Rocky Mountain range. Or the old maroon Arizona plate, which planted a simple saguaro cactus in the middle. Even plain old Illinois has Honest Abe stamped right in the middle of its Land of Lincoln plate.
White, the former state trooper whose license plate collection once numbered in the thousands, had to go all the way back to the 1940s to find a classic image for Nebraska: the State Capitol building in Lincoln. That plate, he thinks, had symmetry and charm and, these days, a nice retro appeal.
White also likes modern plates that have a lot of color and imagery. Something that grabs the eye. Something to talk about when you meet a stranger who, noting the plate, says: You’re from Nebraska?
White showed me license plate designs that, although colorful and interesting, seemed to have little to do with the state they represent. Like the butterfly on the Kentucky plate. Or the cardinal on an older version of Illinois. They just looked nice.
Doesn’t the extra color or design make it harder for state troopers to see the license plate number? Not if the colors contrast, he said.
White thinks Nebraska’s new plain plate might suggest a plain state.
“It kind of reminds me of the 1985 blue-on-white,” he said. “Real plain label.”
Plain label. How I-80. That’s hardly a message that helps Nebraskans, who are already a bit defensive about the state’s image, feel good about themselves.
California’s license plate — blue numbers on a white background with a red cursive “California” — doesn’t seem particularly creative, either. But then, the Golden State doesn’t need a roving billboard.
Political scientist Paul Landow said maybe Nebraskans especially care about what others think of us.
“We have a sense of pride in being a Nebraskan, and we feel like we’re different ... because we’re Nebraskans,” he said. “So we care about seemingly little things like license plates because they reflect on us.”
It doesn’t necessarily take an iconic symbol to have a good license plate design. Basic elements like color and font can do the trick.
Graphic designer Kim Theesen of Lincoln submitted an idea to the state in 2009 that featured a black license plate with yellow numbers and letters. Its only adornment was the word “Nebraska” in white. It was simple, direct and not boring.
But a license plate does present a real design challenge. It’s a small canvas already dominated by numbers and letters.
One clever Nebraska plate from the 1960s featured the state outline, with the registration sticker on the lower left, under the Panhandle.
Davies, who owns the firm Oxide Design, has played with that idea in a mock-up for a license plate he’d like to see. He added one thing: Nebraska’s beloved and unofficial slogan, “The Good Life.”
Not all Nebraska plates have been panned. A Nebraska specialty plate honoring Union Pacific was the No. 1 pick worldwide in 2014 by the 3,000-member Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, which bills itself as “the largest and most respected club for license plate collectors and aficionados all over the world.” Anyone can have that plate, which was designed by a professional, after paying the $70 fee.
The association’s president, Gregory Gibson of Fenton, Michigan, quickly disabused me of any notion Nebraska is unique in its ritualistic license plate kvetching.
“What you describe is not uncommon at all,” he said. “That is true, simply because everyone has different tastes. It’s been said that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and license plate design is no exception.”
There’s yet another issue over the new Nebraska plate: the design selection process.
“In this case, the license plates were done by fiat,” said Democrat Landow in an oblique shot at Republican Ricketts. “People automatically get their backs up when they feel like something is getting pushed down their throats.”
White wishes the public could have had a say. So do at least 1,000 people who signed an online petition last week begging for an alternative.
“Let the people of Nebraska vote,” White said.
But Ricketts has basically said: It’s what’s for dinner, kids. Eat it.
In a way, he’s got a point. Too much public input can make a mess. For example, the current leader in an online contest to name a $287 million British polar research vessel is “Boaty McBoatface.”
And remember 2010? That’s when then-Gov. Dave Heineman offered the public a choice from among four proposed license plate designs. A humor website urged its readers to vote for the most boring design — and that design won. Thankfully, the state recounted the votes, which is why we’ve got the state flower and state bird on our cars right now.
Davies said a thoughtful design marries the function of a license plate with form, a simple symbol that says: This is Nebraska.
The license plate, he said, functions as a mini-billboard, an “encapsulated form of what Nebraska stands for.”
And what should that be?
Davies didn’t mind the Sower. The act of planting — whether crops or ideas — can be a great metaphor.
Nebraska State Poet Twyla Hansen, who grew up on a farm, believes any Nebraska iconography should be tied to the land. Her poetry, like her latest collection, “Dirt Songs,” reflects this.
Hansen happens to like this latest plate. She, for one, is not tearing out her hair.
“It’s just a license plate,” she says.
And it’s just the weather.
And it’s just the Huskers.
But here’s the thing. Of these three, there is only one we really could do something about.
So why don’t we?