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Choosing Iowa's New License Plate

Next year a newly-designed license plate will be available for Iowans.  Earlier this year, the governor's office asked for a new look for the plates. On the first day of the Iowa State Fair at the Department of Transportation’s booth, state officials unveiled three designs.  Gov. Kim Reynolds was on hand for the unveiling, and said she likes what she sees.

“They’ve done a good job,” says Reynolds. “I really am grateful to the staff for really their expertise in being able to design this.”

At the booth, people line up to get a close look on a large computer screen to vote for the design they want to be on the next state license plate.

The first is called “The Great Wide Open.”  It features green rolling hills resembling a Grant Wood style. Ray Bachman from New Hampton says it looks like Iowa to him.

“That’s more farm oriented,” he says.

The plate with a blue strip on top, a red on the bottom, a bald eagle in middle, and the year 1846 in the corner has the eye of Karen from southeast Iowa.

“I like the patriotic and the vivid colors and I like the fact that it says we were established in 1846,” says Karen,  who only gave us her first name.

The design with the skyline of Des Moines and the outline of a wind turbine and a farm is what Vanezza Van Buzkirk from Iowa Falls favors.

“I just like the mix of the city and county together,” says Buzkirk. “It’s representing Iowa and how it’s showing that our state is mix of city and country."

A few months ago, graphic designers at the Department of Transportation came up with around 40 designs.  DOT spokeswoman Andrea Henry says they have to keep the look as simple as possible.

“To make sure they’re legible for law enforcement,” says Henry. “That is the primary purpose of the plate so that we can identify the vehicle and the owner of the vehicle.  So that we have to be careful that that design doesn’t impede that recognition of the alphanumeric combination on the plates themselves.”

State law requires the county name be placed on the plate, but there is no law prohibiting a slogan or a motto.

“That was one thing that we decided to stay away from is we didn’t want the plate to become dated. We wanted a timeless design and you know slogans come and go, so we wanted to make sure and just leave that out of our design consideration.”

Once selected, metal plates bearing the design will come from the 3M Company, but the customized stage of production happens at Anamosa State Penitentiary. Luke Fowler is the License Shop’s production manager where a dozen workers make 1.3 million plates during an average year.

A specialized computer and printing system prints the letters, numbers, and the county for every vehicle registered in the state.

“Right now we have 24 different collegiate plates that we offer,” says Fowler. “We have veteran plates, handicapped plates, DNR plates, and then we also run all the dealership plates. So as of right now there’s 104 different options to choose from that we make.”

Adding a new design isn’t going to dramatically change his workflow.  

Iowans are only issued new plates every 10 years, except for new vehicles or replacing stolen or damaged plates.  For those who can’t wait, the new design is available for an extra fee of five dollars.  Fowler says if there is a sudden rush for new plates, his shop can meet the demand.

“Every day we can make average 16,000 plates per day. That’s 8,000 pair.”

The Department of Transportation will phase in the look sometime next year. As to which design, that decision is being made by people voting for their favorite one at the DOT’s state fair booth or on their website. Voting closes on August 20th

John Pemble is a reporter for IPR