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License Plate Designs

Chadron State College students in Mary Donahue’s graphic design class display designs they created to fulfill a request from the Nebraska Big Game Society for a license plate featuring either an elk or a big horn sheep. From left, Brooke Moore of Wellfleet, Savannah Weidauer of St. George, Utah, Kayla Reinke of Pierce, Riley Ellis of Harrison, Jessica Rawlings of Chadron, Chris Wright of Gering, and Matt Ellis of Chadron. Not pictured, Sarah Stangle. 

Given the challenge of creating a specialty license plate design featuring an iconic Nebraska big game animal, eight Chadron State College students in Mary Donahue’s graphic design class did so well the organization that requested the work has had a hard time selecting which one of the designs it would like to see on Nebraska vehicles.

“Those kids did a fantastic job,” said Jon Thomas, executive director of the Nebraska Big Game Society. “One or two of the designs stand out, but not by a lot. It’s really hard to make a decision.”

The project began when the Big Game Society, described by Thomas as the preeminent organization for big game conservation in Nebraska, contacted CSC Art Department Chair Laura Bentz this summer and asked if students could come up with a license plate design featuring either an elk or a big horn sheep. Bentz passed the request on to Donahue, who was delighted to put her students on the project.

“I think this is really wonderful to do a real-life project. The students get excited about that,” Donahue said.

The success of a license plate featuring a mountain lion that Nebraska introduced in 2016 inspired the Big Game Society, which raises money to assist Game and Parks conservation efforts, to think of featuring other animals as well, said Thomas. A portion of the extra charge for the specialty plate goes to the Game and Parks Commission education fund, he noted. “There is so much interest in plates like that because the money goes to education,” he said.

Thomas said he provided the students with only basic information about size and proportion requirements for a plate design, and a few pictures of elk and big horn sheep.

“They met the (design) criteria easily,” he said.

The project posed some unique challenges for students, including creating an effective design for the small size of a vehicle license plate, and working with the required numbers and letters.

“I had to make sure my background wasn’t too contrasting, so the numbers would stand out,” Jessica Rawlings, a senior from Chadron said.

And it’s not easy to create a design that makes an impression even when viewed only briefly by a passing motorist, said Savannah Weidauer, a senior from St. George, Utah.

“You have got a quick chance and have to make sure it stands out to get their attention,” she said.

Working on the project also made the students more aware of the role of graphic art.

“You look at license plates, but you don’t think about the design behind it,” said Kayla Reinke, a junior from Pierce, Nebraska.

Riley Ellis, a junior from Harrison, Nebraska, focused on his piece’s composition.

“After looking at it as a graphic design project, it was easier to think about it less as a license plate and more as a good composition,” Ellis said.

The students turned in their designs at the end of September, but as of the end of October, the society hadn’t made a decision about which one to forward to the Game and Parks Commission. “We have been working on it for a month, but can’t come to a consensus,” Thomas said.

It will take even longer before a plate bearing one of the designs will be offered to the public. Thomas said the society has to come up with at least 250 people who will purchase the plates before Game and Parks will even consider the design and the Unicameral has to approve it as well.

“It takes at least six months to get approval,” he said.

He’s confident the project will be successful, though, and that the themed license plate will be popular with Nebraska motorists, just like the mountain lion design, which has sold more than 25,000 plates since it was introduced.

“I think a lot of people out there will buy the plate,” said Thomas.

And working on the project was a learning experience, because it raised awareness of how much graphic design is part of life, said Ellis.

“It helps you realize how much you don’t actually see things like signs, billboards and license plates,” he said. “It all has to do with graphic design. You might not notice it at first but once you step back, you kind of realize it’s everywhere.”

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