Top 6 Custom License Plate Design Tips & Guidelines
One of the Leeward differences is our focus on good custom tag design for every customer, regardless of the plate type you buy, whether aluminum or plastic. That doesn’t happen automatically — specific things make it happen. Here’s the factors you’ll need to consider when thinking about what to put on your custom license plate, and how. Whether we’re designing your tag for you or you’re doing it yourself, putting these guidelines into practice helps us fulfill our mission to get you a tag design you’ll be proud to point to.
Tag Tips for Good-Looking, Attention-Getting License Plates
LESS IS USUALLY MORE
Designing for quick comprehension. Your tag will be viewed by others at some distance away, and sometimes while moving. Items on it should be sufficiently large for immediate recognition and legibility. It can be tempting to try and cram in too much information, which makes everything too small.
Instead, we recommend selecting the most important graphic symbol, name, and/or tagline/ slogan you want to communicate, and keeping the total elements to about three. Perhaps less if you have a well-designed, powerful logo or other identifying symbol. Single, dominant elements are often the most memorable. (See our custom license plate design samples for examples of the attention-getting power of single, elemental symbols and/or typography.)
SIMPLIFY YOUR DESIGN
For graphics: If you are starting from intricate artwork, use a simplified version of it that is clearly visible at a distance, and doesn’t appear muddled because of too much detail. Instead of two or three smaller pieces of art placed around the auto tag clip-art-style, use one large graphic and emphasize it.
For text: To enable the use of larger type, leave out unnecessary or implied words. Don’t get stuck thinking you have to reproduce your organization’s entire official name if it’s long. Example: Instead of saying Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church, just say Gethsemane Missionary Baptist or even just Gethsemane Baptist. Or, if you must reproduce the entire name, make one or two words large and dominant, and make preceding or following words above or below the main words smaller. Notice in our tag design samples how organizations that feature fewer items and/or words tend to grab attention more quickly because what’s there stands out better.
WORKING WITH TYPE
Typeface selection. Use bold typefaces (or if not, set type larger), preferably those that can condense well if needed (or that may be somewhat condensed to begin with) and can remain legible without looking distorted. Even so, however, condense type only modestly, when necessary.
Fitting to available space. If you do condense type, don’t over-condense it electronically to the point it looks distorted or squished just to fit a word on a line. (Harder to read, and projects an amateurish, unprofessional image.) If you find yourself tempted by such a situation, see Point #2 above (eliminate nonessential words). Expanding or stretching the type width works similarly: use common sense and avoid pushing things to the point of distortion.
Serif typefaces can typically stand more condensing than sans-serif fonts before beginning to look distorted. Even so, a good rule of thumb is not to horizontally scale type below about 80–90% of original width. Sans-serif typefaces in particular usually cannot take condensing below 90% of the width without starting to look squished, sometimes even just 95%. If you use a sans-serif face and it needs to be condensed more than very modestly, try to find a condensed font designed that way originally rather than artificially condensing it electronically.
Use fonts with classic letter shapes and well-formed characters. As a general rule, avoid decorative or ornate typefaces that may look good to you up close on paper but are too intricate for readability at a distance. On occasion, you might be able to get away with using a more ornate typeface if it’s used just to spice up one or two very large words. The increased size will help compensate for loss in legibility and also more strongly project the “personality” of the typeface. Consider carefully, though, before doing this and possibly sacrificing easy recognition of your name or message.
HOW TO WORK WITH GRAPHICS
Vector art vs. photographic or Photoshopped images. Vector artwork means graphics built with smooth lines and curves — rather than pixels — typically using Adobe Illustrator, FreeHand, or CorelDraw. Prime examples of vector artwork are logos or other artwork with clean, hard edges such as sports mascots or cartoon-style illustrations. Images that are photos or contain Photoshop-like effects are known as bitmap or pixel-based graphics since they’re composed of small, square pixels. These may originate as photos from cameras or instead may be created directly in Photoshop or other photo-editing or paint programs.
Why and when to use vector vs. Photoshop images. A crucial difference between vector and bitmap files is that the former can be enlarged to any size with no quality loss, while the latter degrade in appearance the larger the size is increased. This is because vector artwork is stored as mathematically smooth lines/ curves that retain perfect fidelity on enlargement. In contrast, the individual pixels making up bitmap art become more visible to the naked eye the more they are enlarged, becoming noticeably “chunky” if enlarged beyond a certain point. However, bitmap files are better than vector-format files for reproducing naturalistic, painted, or photorealistic images. The key to ensuring the best-quality artwork is to make sure you’re furnishing us the file format appropriate to the type of artwork on your license plates.
Vector art file formats. For vector art, the best format to send us is EPS, which all professional drawing programs such as Illustrator, FreeHand, and CorelDraw should be able to export. Artwork saved in this format directly from a drawing program will retain its perfectly smooth edges no matter how much it’s enlarged, since the lines, curves, and hard edges are stored in the file as perfect, mathematically smooth curves. Try to avoid file conversions of vector art that have been resaved in pixel-based bitmap formats — such as JPEGs, GIFs, PNGs, TIFs, and BMPs, if at all possible, unless the resolution is high — 300dpi or higher at the intended final output size (dpi = dots per inch). Especially avoid low-resolution JPEGs, GIFs, and PNGs taken from websites (72dpi), unless you are sending them for us to rework. When such graphics are enlarged on a car tag, a jaggy, “stairstepping” effect along curved or diagonal object edges will often be visible. Sending us a printed copy of your logo (one printed by a commercial printer, such as a letterhead) may sometimes be preferable to emailing a logo from your organization’s website, or to one embedded in a Microsoft Word document or PowerPoint file.
Bitmap file formats. For photographic images or Photoshop-created artwork, send us the highest-resolution file (highest dpi) you have available to ensure the best detail. The best formats containing the most detail will be either Photoshop’s native format (PSD) or TIF or BMP files. If all you have available is low-resolution bitmapped artwork, go ahead and send it, though.
Low-resolution artwork. Artwork taken from websites normally is 72dpi which will be very rough after enlargement for reproduction on larger items like license plates. Except for photographic or Photoshopped images, we’ll usually rebuild such low-resolution art with clean lines in vector format if possible so it reproduces well at a large size, unless what you send us is 300dpi resolution or above to begin with. (Note: For complex art rebuilds — about one in ten cases — we may need to make an exception to our standard free artwork policy. If this occurs, we will notify you ahead of time. An artwork rebuild fee of approximately $50 or perhaps somewhat more applies in such cases.)
Expense of printing vector vs. Photoshop images. Vector artwork composed of solid colors without gradients/ blends can be reproduced the least expensively of any type of art, using screen-printed spot-color license plates. (Spot-color means single individual colors, usually solid colors, although tints — lighter shades of a given solid color — are sometimes also possible.) Photographic artwork or graphics incorporating Photoshop-like effects require the use of full-color printing, known as “four-color process” or CMYK color in the printing industry, which costs more. (See our pricing pages for each type of plate.)
If you are creating the artwork yourself using a layout program, use one of the vector drawing programs mentioned above that can save EPS files. Or for photographic-type artwork, use a program that can save high-quality Photoshop (PSD) or TIF-format files. And don’t forget to download the handy-dandy EPS tag layout templates on our downloads page — the templates we use ourselves. Where vector art is concerned, although we can take WMF vector-format files, better to avoid them. (EPS artwork is cleaner, more streamlined, easier to work with, and more trouble-free.) For vector art, remember to convert all fonts to “paths” or “outlines” before exporting to EPS and sending the artwork. With layered Photoshop files, be sure to save a copy with any fonts rasterized to pixels before sending to us. Otherwise we may have to use substitute fonts, which — although we’ll attempt as close a match as possible — could alter the look you or your designer intended.
SELECT COLORS WITH GOOD CONTRAST AND LEGIBILITY IN MIND
Colors that work best. Ensure sufficient contrast between foreground and background colors for the type to be readable at a distance. On white tags, use darker colors or red for type. For colored backgrounds, use darker colors or red for the background color, and white or bright colors for typography. Alternatively, lighter colors can be used as colored backgrounds if dark-enough contrasting colors are used for the type.
If sufficiently contrasting colors cannot be used for the typography on tags with colored or black backgrounds, here’s a good trick. The standard solution in such circumstances is usually to place a white outline of about 1/8” in width, sometimes more, all around the perimeters of the letterforms. This supplies the contrast needed for good legibility and also allows more flexibility in color usage where needed.
With graphics there is more leeway in the contrast needed, whatever the background color, but use common sense. When contrasting colors are not possible, the tip just above for type (placing a white outline around the artwork) also usually works well for vector graphics hard/ cleanedges) against black or colored backgrounds.
If you need to reproduce a pre-existing color in your organization’s logo, or for other situations where color fidelity is an issue, specify a Pantone Matching System (PMS) color number from an industry-standard Pantone swatch book. Alternatively, if you aren’t familiar with the Pantone system, you can send us a physical item containing the color you need to match. These are the only ways we or any other printer can achieve a good color match.
ALLOW FOR OUTER PLATE MARGIN AND TAG MOUNTING HOLES
Leave a sufficient margin between artwork/ type and the edges of the tag. There are two margins to be aware of around the edge of the tag:
Margin for printed border around edge. Leave either 3/16” or 1/4” (depending on the specific plate item number) between the edge of the tag’s perimeter and any border placed around the edge, such as the outer border often printed just inside the perimeter of the tag. With some plate types or printing processes, this is the closest that artwork can be printed from the outer edge. While “bleed” artwork can be printed with other plate types, it’s still helpful to keep in mind the minimum outer margin allowance when placing artwork borders. Keeping artwork within this limit reduces the chances that any slight “drift” in positioning of the border relative to the surrounding tag edge during printing or die-cutting might become noticeable, regardless of the production process.
Tag fra me allowance. Consider that some people may put tag fra mes around their license plate, which can obscure artwork or type near the top and bottom of the tag. Many tag fra mes encroach far enough into the tag (often 1” from the top or bottom of the plate) that, if you want to be absolutely safe, here’s what to do: Simply keep your artwork within a 4”-deep horizontal “safe zone” swath running across the tag between the top and bottom tag holes.
Often, though, it’s impractical to allow for this worst-case scenario, so here’s a good compromise: Try to keep any critical features of the artwork from extending upward or downward beyond the central 4”-deep safe zone, so that the main artwork remains recognizable even if smaller portions of it might get covered up by a fra me. For example, in many situations you needn’t worry much about overstepping this boundary somewhat if any artwork that does so consists of things like: points of stars, the ends of swooshes, flourishes, the top or bottom tip of a cross, etc.)
Avoid tag hole interference. Pay attention that the 4 tag mounting holes or slots do not punch through any important features of your plate artwork. It’s a good idea to use the downloadable plate layout template for the plate item number you’re ordering to check for yourself, even though we’ll also do so on our end when setting up your artwork for output prior to production. Checking ahead of time is better, though, since some designs can be difficult to revamp after the fact in a suitable way if it turns out that a tag hole will punch through something important. If you’re designing the plate yourself, plan for any such potential issues ahead of time before things get “set into stone.”
Following these tips will put you on the road to an attention-getting custom license plate that makes you look good too. You’ll want to consider the guidelines ahead of time, whether you’re having us design your tag or doing it yourself. (If the latter, remember to get the appropriate EPS tag layout template from our downloads page for use with drawing programs such as Illustrator, FreeHand, or CorelDraw.)