Finding the essence of the Smokies

Micah McClure, a graphic designer in Waynesville, faced a daunting task when asked to redesign the Friends of the Smokies license plate in a way that would capture the essence of America’s most visited national park.


“It needed to be simple and recognizable. It is something viewed mostly at a distance and the brain has to compute that very quickly, almost like a billboard,” McClure said. “It had to be an image that was easy to recognize and the feelings people got from that image would have to convey the message we were trying to put out there.”

The Smoky Mountain News was one of several firms that submitted bids to design the new plate for Friends of the Smokies. The Smoky Mountain News sealed the deal by offering its design services for free.

“As a non-profit, we try to do everything at the least expense possible,” said George Ivey, director of Friends of the Smokies on the N.C. side of the park.

Ivey and McClure quickly lit on the idea of featuring a black bear in the new plate design. McClure began corralling every image of a black bear he could get his hands on to familiarize himself with the black bear’s anatomical features.

“Their shape is distinctive. They are not Kodiak bears, they are not pandas they are not grizzlies — they have their own shape,” McClure said.

He researched everything from wildlife photography books to old encyclopedias with black and white line drawings. After weeks of studying pictures, he bit the bullet and put pencil to paper, drawing bears of the right size and dimension to fit on the plate.

With each new prototype, McClure and Ivey took turns holding up the design from across the room to be viewed at a distance. When they settled on their two favorite bear designs, they sent out mock-ups to members of Friends of the Smokies to vote on. There was a third design on the ballot as well: the existing Smokies plate. McClure and Ivey kept their fingers crossed as more than 300 comments came rolling in.

“I was a little nervous,” said McClure, who’d never had his work voted on or been subject to quite so much feedback. “With any artistic work there is always room for improvement. Critique is a good thing, but it is always scary to go through that process.”

Ivey was also a bit nervous. He was the main proponent of a new plate design within the Friends of the Smokies, but sometimes change can be a hard sell.

“There is a little bit of risk when making a major change in something that is by no means failing,” Ivey said. “There is definitely a feeling of, ‘If it’s not broke don’t fix it,’ but I think any successful company mixes things up now and then. Whether its Coca-Coal or McDonald’s, they come up with new slogans and marketing campaigns to keep everything fresh.”

When the ballots were counted, more Friends of the Smokies members had voted for a bear design over the old design. Voters favored the side-profile of a bear’s head over an image of a bear on all fours.

McClure was happy. That’s the one he liked best, too.

“A complete bear was not as recognizable as ‘This is a bear,’” McClure said. “It was easier to convey the image by just using a head shot.”

The next step was refining the design based on the feedback they got.

“We took some of the best of those ideas and put them together into a final design,” McClure said.

There was one last hurdle: approval from the state Highway Patrol and DMV. There are various rules in specialty license plate design, geared around the need for law enforcement to read license plates quickly. In other words, the picture can’t interfere with legibility.

Half the plate — the middle part no less — must be devoted to the numbers. That makes it tricky to convey a single image across the entire plate. There can only be three colors in the plate. The numbers must stand out clearly with a sharp contrast in color from the background color. The plate was cleared on it’s first submission to the state.

Scott McLeod, the publisher of the Smoky Mountain News, said he was proud the paper could make a contribution that will hopefully give Friends of the Smokies a fundraising boost from increased plate sales.

“From the very beginning, we never considered charging them for the design. The work that Friends does for the park is an invaluable asset to the entire region. It was rewarding to all of us at The Smoky Mountain News just to be involved in this project,” said McLeod.

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