License to Design

Inspired by brilliant redesigns of Airline Boarding Passes and Concert Tickets, I decided to redesign something in a similar fashion: the common Driver License. The key to the above links as well as my own project is not just making a good design, but also rethinking the functionality and clarity of the object being designed. It’s as much a rethink as it is a redesign.

The first step in any design is clarity of message. We need to present information in the clearest, most efficient manner possible. Designers are communicators; Graphics is our language.
While boarding passes and concert tickets have a modicum of security measures, for my project, the most important feature of a Driver License or Personal Identification is anti-counterfeiting.
Let’s look at the current license for our home state of Minnesota first.


We have a blown-out, small image that can easily be faked and is hard to see in all but the brightest light. Followed by small, cramped text that is placed in such a way as to be as hard to read as possible. Don’t think I’m just picking on the MN license; in my research I’ve found that every state in the Union has equally bad layout and conceptualization (the only exception being the latest New York State License that is legible and elegant. But still suffers the long-standing convention of cramming a large amount of content into a very small space, much of it not necessary).

Now, when I said “research”, I mean I did some Google image searches, and then made my own logical deductions. Let’s think about the Driver License (I know it says Driver’s License on the current MN version; there seems to be no consensus on this syntax as each state varies. I think we could spend a whole post on arguing the grammatical connotations of that Apostrophe, so I’ll just leave it at this for now: I think it looks better without the apostrophe-s) and it’s use in daily life. Based on my own life experience I found there’s Three Main Uses for this small piece of plastic, in order of frequency:

  • Proving you are of legal drinking age
  • Providing Identification during traffic stops
  • Security measures (e.g. Boarding an airplane, banking, retail purchases (Although nobody has ever asked for my ID when I’m paying with my unsigned bank card.))

What do those three all have in common? Each one is looking for a speedy, easily recognizable verification that you are who you say you are, and you are allowed to do what you are attempting to do.

So, that in mind, we can see that this is apparently not the goal of the current design. Things are hard to read and hard to find. The most prominent features are the words “Minnesota” and “Driver’s License”. While the latter is important, the former is a waste of valuable design real estate and only functional if we were passing these out as business cards advertising the great state of Minnesota. All we need to know is where it was issued, and we can do that in smaller text and with visual clues.


Anyway, that’s enough ripping on “Design by Bureaucracy”, on to the new concept. As you can see, the most prominent feature is the most important: The photo. (Can one card contain this much handsome? It can when it’s just a quick photo in low light on an iPhone). This is what cops and bartenders and anyone checking out your mug will look at first. Making it large makes it easier to see, easier to compare to your living face, and harder to forge. The photo has an Instagram type effect over it to add another layer for counterfeiters to have to achieve and would be printed with 4-color process inks. A hologram of the State Seal is placed over the photo, making it very difficult to swap out a photo.


Next we call out the second most important information: The name and the date of birth. People want to see if your name matches the check you’re trying to cash, and bouncers want to see when you were born. There it is, clear and easy to read at just a glance. Using two tones of spot inks here, as well as knocked out accents and signature, are further ideas for security. This would require a forger to replace the entire yellow band in an attempt to change an existing ID, or to have multiple printing techniques on hand.

Most licenses have Date issued and full dates for Expiration. I didn’t feel the Issued Date was important enough to have on the license itself and could be stored in a database associated with the License holder. And as the expiration date is always the same month and day as the birth date, only a small indication of the year is placed near the bottom.

Instead of wasting space on text explaining individual specification such as class, restrictions, and donor status, a set of simple icons tells us everything we need to know.

Physical stats and addresses were moved to the back as they were of less importance and don’t require to be readily visible on the front. Some information is duplicated on the back for ease of use, as well as a magnetic strip, a second black ink photo, and a 2D barcode.


I’m sure there’s more to consider for legality and identity security, arguments for biometrics and RFID tags, but I wanted something simple and modern but still uses established methods for security and production.

I would love your feedback, and to hear what you think! Check out this project on Behance!

Written by: Michael Nelsen, Interactive Director