Handpicked Typefaces

License Plate Alphabets

July 27, 2015 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

The summer holidays are the ideal time of the year to study foreign license plates. At home you can see lots of tourists from abroad driving around, and when you’re on vacation yourself, well, basically everything around you is ‘abroad’. The letters and numerals on those plates can look quite different from the ones in your native country. Some look so special that they inspired type designers to adapt them into digital typefaces.

In my parallel career as a typeface identifier – originally on the Typophile Type Identification Board and now for FontShop – I have occasionally received identification requests for license plate ‘typefaces’. Now there is a recurring misunderstanding regarding those. Contrary to what some people believe, the characters on the plates have nothing in common with ‘regular’ fonts in the sense that they would be available in digital format to use on your computer. Yes, I know, there are sometimes state names or slogans or whatever in “regular” fonts at the top or bottom of the plates, but I focus exclusively on the letters and numbers that actually identify the vehicle. Those alphabets have been specifically made – custom designed as it were – for the plate-making machines that produce the license plates. So they are not based on fonts designed for conventional typesetting.

Collection of old license plates in Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Strip District. © Rob Matheny
Collection of old license plates in Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Strip District. © Rob Matheny

Yet those letters and numbers exert a certain appeal on designers – they certainly have intrigued me personally since I noticed those wondrous new shapes on the German license plates halfway the nineties. There’s something about their mechanical aesthetic: characters forcefully stamped into metal, which results in those typical rounded corners. The fact that their shapes are defined by technical requirements rather than by aesthetic considerations, and the need for differentiation to avoid confusion between similar characters often leads to rather awkward, and in some cases downright bizarre letter forms.

Some typeface designers have been inspired by those peculiar shapes to create digital adaptations. Those range from almost literal translations to freestyle interpretations. What’s interesting about these fonts is that the source alphabets are by definition incomplete. The original character set are limited to the capitals and numerals, leaving a considerable amount of freedom for the type designer when completing and expanding them.

Rusty license plate. © Tiffany Wardle
Rusty license plate. © Tiffany Wardle

Platelet

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The very first license plate font that caught my attention was the Emigre release Platelet by Conor Mangat, a loose interpretation of the letters and numbers on California license plates. The design retains the monospaced quality of the original alphabet, which is not only a technical requirement but also ensures that a fixed number of characters fit onto a plate with maximum legibility at a distance.

A distinctive trait of Platelet is the capitals that are exactly as tall as the x-height, thus allowing for unicase setting. This opens up numerous options for creative type composition and playful combinations. The oldstyle figures generously extend above and below the x-height, another very recognisable feature. Platelet’s design includes some peculiar character shapes that address the reduced legibility of geometric designs, and offers some clever solutions to the problems inherent to monospaced designs. As every character must fit in the same width, the lowercase ‘m’ and ‘w’ need to be condensed quite a bit. To avoid that the three stems create a density problem, the middle ones have been shortened. Conversely, instead of adding the traditional extended serifs to the lowercase ‘i’ and ‘l’, a large curved lead-out stroke helps fill their width.

Other characters of note are a very beautiful lowercase ‘g’ and ‘k’, and a cute rounded uppercase ‘A’ and ‘E’. However the most striking design solutions are to be found in the ‘b’ and ‘B’. The lowercase ‘b’ incorporates the uppercase form, dramatically increasing its recognition factor, and the uppercase ‘B’ shows a hint of an ascender.

[link not found] Platelet comes in three weights – Thin, Regular and Heavy. It’s one of the very first licenses I purchased at the beginning of my career and still love it to bits.

A typeface that somewhat echoes the general feel of Platelet is Tobias Frere-Jones’ popular Garage Gothic, which was derived from numbered tickets given at city parking garages. When designing the font Tobias retained the irregular contours and rough alignments found on the lettering, but disciplined and restrained them. The very condensed family also comes in three weights: a statuesque Regular, a Bold and a deliciously fat Black.

Pennsylvania License Plate Mash. © NMPlatescapes
Pennsylvania License Plate Mash. © NMPlatescapes

Pennsylvania

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Christian Schwartz went a step further with the Font Bureau release Pennsylvania, named after the American state that issues the license plates its design is based. He expanded the original alphabet into a full fledged family in Regular and Bold weights with matching italics and small caps for every variation.

Just like in Platelet, Christian retained the monospaced quality of the original alphabet. However he approached the source material more faithfully, adding a lowercase and punctuation but leaving the original shapes of the capitals intact. The erratic serifs found in those capitals were mirrored in the lowercase to even out its texture. It is a testimony to Christian’s considerable talent as a typeface designer that he managed – seemingly without effort – to turn the mechanical shapes of the source material into such an eminently usable typeface. But this is not a cookie-cutter fixed pitch design. Although the actual shapes of the characters are refined and typographically sound, the general feel is one of industrial design and factory strength. You get the impression that the somewhat condensed characters rise like buildings in the city skyline. Christian’s interpretation makes for a versatile typeface that is equally suited for text setting as it is for display use.

At the car licensing bureau. © Rabea Gleissner
At the car licensing bureau. © Rabea Gleissner

Sauerkrauto

The most striking license plate alphabet in my opinion is the German one mentioned at the beginning, masterfully digitised by Martin Lexelius as Sauerkrauto. Previously released through Chank, Sauerkrauto was reworked and re-issued by Fountain, and is now published through Martin Lexelius’ own foundry. Martin abandoned the monospaced aspect and turned the typeface into a proportional design.

Sometime around 1998 German tourists with snazzy new cars began to appear in Martin’s hometown Malmö, which is quite close to Denmark and Germany. From the onset he was mesmerised by the assymetrical characters on the license plates, which looked macho and weird. The FE-Schrift is the result of the collaboration between psychologists, a number plate manufacturer and a type designer. They set out to make it virtually impossible to counterfeit plates by changing letter forms or numerals (for example ‘F’ or ‘L’ into ‘E’, or ‘3’ into ‘8’).

Martin photographed as many plates as he could spot, then scanned them and started to design Sauerkrauto. He beautifully adapted the idiosyncratic letter forms of the FE alphabet into a striking display face. Since the license plates have uppercase only, he simply imagined his own lowercase. Later on he added a font with alternative lowercase character shapes (single storey ‘a’ and double storey ‘g’ amongst others) as well as a small cap font; all of these have now been integrated as features into the OpenType fonts.

Sauerkrauto is not the only digital adaptation of the FE alphabet. Stephan Müller and Hansjakob Fehr released their own version through the Swiss Lineto foundry. Personally I find their FE Mittelschrift and FE Engschrift compare unfavourably to Sauerkrauto as the lowercase they came up with is less successful than Martin’s. You get the impression they tried too hard and designed weird character shapes just for the sake of weirdness. Because the original design of the capitals with its straight lines and rounded corners and its large rounded ink traps and gaps is peculiar enough as it is, there really was no need to overemphasise this.

Katarine

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There is one last typeface that belongs to this list. Even though technically speaking Katarine was not derived from letters on license plates, the type family has the aesthetics down pat. Tomáš Brousil’s design originated from a single caps-only display font for setting posters and print-jobbing. After adding the lowercase characters, Tomáš created a Medium weight, followed by a Light and a Bold. Interpolation and endless corrections to the mechanically generated characters yielded Regular and Semibold weights.

Several drawing principles rule the construction of the typeface. Uppercase characters are based on an oval shape and are therefore lighter at the top. The lowercase characters are based on a more robust square shape, which makes them sit more firmly on the baseline. The figures are almost geometric and top-heavy. All these seemingly contradictory design principles create a nice tension, and together with the rounded corners and angled finials on diagonals the typeface seems warm and humanistic yet with a mechanical undercurrent.

The family is very versatile – comfortable to read in small sizes thanks to its open shapes and straightforward, simple letter forms, and slightly quirky and personable in display sizes. It meets the the demands of contemporary typesetting, with small caps for all of the five weights with matching italics, all the different styles of numerals, extended ligature sets, arrows and frames, numerals in four different frames, etc. I have used it as my own “corporate face” for the past six years or so, and it still is one of my go-to faces for uncomplicated and friendly text, tables and graphics.

Header image Cuban license plate by Francesca Antichi