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New York’s Age of Design Apathy Is Here

Expensive, garish, barely concealing its contempt and ultimately not achieving much.

6:20 PM EDT on June 12, 2023

A new license plate unveiled by the DMV, featuring One World Trade Center, a tiny Statue of Liberty, and a miasma over some seemingly random buildings.

(New York Department of Motor Vehicles)

On Monday, the Department of Motor Vehicles unveiled its design for a license plate celebrating New York City, the first of 10 regional license plates to be released this summer. That idea sounds fine in theory; all the state has to do is make them not look bad. New York City has so many symbols! Just pick one and do a decent job. Buuuuuut the thing is, the DMV settled on a design that has the vibe of what can best be described as a "subway ad for a for-profit college." 

The new plate is a congested field of hospital-gown blues, which if you squint at it for long enough, reveals itself to be a partial view of the Manhattan skyline on a gloomy evening, with the Statue of Liberty tucked into the corner, almost seeming to cower from a massive, prominent One World Trade Center. (One discarded title of this blog post: "Lady Liberty Finally Put in Place by Magnificent Phallus on New Plates.") A little baby blue Photoshop mist is in front of the south end of the skyline to better contrast with the black text. But confusingly, that part of the license plate doesn't seem to match up with reality—it appears to just be a kind of digitally mangled mess of gothic black shapes that I'm pretty sure isn't actually the rest of the Financial District skyline, for some reason. There's a spooky ghost building between the numbers "2" and "3" in the mockup, and what is that behind "ABC"?

??? (via The New York Department of Motor Vehicles)

This is objectively bad, and ugly. In the Hell Gate Slack, we immediately began picking it apart, and spitballing alternative design choices the DMV could have made. But as we were doing this, I realized that we were missing the point. Because what if the DMV wants it to look bad? What if that's what they decided?

Yes, this redesign looks like it could be any knockoff tourist trinket sold at Times Square or Penn Station. But as a gesture of goodwill, it doesn't try to upstage them simply because it's the product of a multibillion-dollar government; rather, this license plate fades into them nihilistically, resigning itself to an uncanny smear of images, rather than any specific assertion of what New York City "is" or "represents." Imagine walking down a street full of Ubers, each with its little blue depiction of Nowhere, New York, attached to its bumper.

Remember the We <3 NYC redesign? Together, these two artifacts of our current Official Design moment, whether purposefully or not, perform a pitch-perfect aestheticization of utter apathy. This license plate captures a moment: a city with its sweatpants on at dinner.

Because in a city with inexhaustible iconography, how do you end up thinking One World Trade is the look? By not giving a fuck. As is their right. 

So yes, we at Hell Gate could throw out better ideas for symbols that could represent New York City on a license plate—the Chrysler building, something chic and high-contrast, a big *insert hand gesture* pizza pie. But nothing is more true of this New York minute than the apathetic aesthetic of this new NYC license plate: expensive, garish, barely concealing its contempt, and ultimately not achieving much.

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