Ironically, one of the few reasons you might not be aware of the Second World War KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON branded poster/teatowel/mug/notebook/keyring/home pregnancy testing kit trend is if you’ve time travelled from the early 1940s. If you have just been flung 70 years through time, and, somehow, found yourself reading this blog, let me explain.
Firstly, 1940s time traveller, don’t panic (my advice would be to keep calm and carry on). You should fit in to present-day Britain: Europe seems to be in disarray, Britain is being ruled by a coalition government, and the Daily Mail is still trying to pretend it was never sympathetic towards fascism. Secondly, the good news is that the 1940s Britain you’ve just left was never invaded by Germany. And so you have never had cause to see posters bearing the message ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’, as, after they were designed in 1939, they were never used.
Present-day Britain has been invaded by a legion of KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON posters, mugs, T shirts and other items of generic derivative tat. So what’s the big problem with this phe-nostalgia-menon? Where did it appear from? And when will it all end?
The poster itself seems undesigned. It’s the government-sanctioned equivalent of a quickly-typed office note ordering workers “DO NOT LEAVE DIRTY MUGS IN SINK”. It’s an anti-design design where the only brief is to simply shout a message as loudly and clearly as possible. Telling people to “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” is about as comforting as saying “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” or “YOU ALMOST CERTAINLY SHUT YOUR FRONT DOOR PROPERLY”. There’s no reason given, no explanation, nothing inherent to the design or the typography that makes it calming or comforting or persuasive: just the ultimate in propaganda. A stark instruction intended to be taken on faith, all on the oh so calm bright blood-red background. Red for stop. Red for danger. Red for war. It’s all a bit silly, really.
The type on the poster is set in Caslon Egyptian (1816), thought to be the first sans serif typeface to be sold commercially. With stout, solid characters, geometrically rounded curves and uniform stroke widths, it was inspired by block letters that would have been hand painted by signwriters of the era, and has a very authentically British feel. The font was first seen in a specimen book produced by William Caslon IV, and, although it wasn’t instantly successful (and isn’t widely available today), you could say it was influential. In the two centuries that followed sans serif typefaces flourished (without flourishes, if you see what I mean).
Because Caslon Egyptian is such a difficult font to find in an easily usable digital font format, many derivative KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON items use sans serif fonts such as Avenir (created in 1988 by Adrian Frutiger), which has some stylistic similarities to Caslon Egyptian. Others will often use classically British typefaces such as Gill Sans, which manages to look authentically English while also being completely wrong.
Barter Books, the bookshop in the North East of England where the 1939 poster was rediscovered in 2000 (the patient zero in the viral spread), erroneously use Gill Sans on their KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON website. They also claim that Caslon Egyptian was used as it made the posters difficult to counterfeit by the enemy – slightly ironic given the proliferation of copies and parodies that have since spread. Today people aren’t too worried about accurately counterfeiting KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. You can easily find copies made not only using Avenir or Gill Sans, but also fonts that share few stylistic features with Caslon Egyptian. Typefaces like Verdana, Arial or Century Gothic.
Despite (or maybe because of) the poster’s message and design being almost comically un-calming, it has been hugely successful, finding a particular foothold in the public consciousness as the global economic meltdown grew in mid 2007. If there’s three things Brits enjoy, it’s a) nostalgia, b) proudly self-mythologizing our stiff upper lips, while c) being aware our cultural heritage is often quite twee and silly. In that context KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON found an audience it was never given in the Second World War. You can see the slogan and its’ derivatives everywhere from up-market boutiques to down-at-heel street markets. It has become as universal as the common cold, constantly mutating and evolving while keeping the same essential form. There is apparently no cure. The list of KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON derived slogans could go on for ever and at the moment looks set to. The other day I saw a T shirt with the slogan KEEP CALM AND GANGNAM STYLE. I mean, for goodness sake. Someone wore that, in public, knowing other human beings could see them.
So what, if anything, can we learn from all of my moaning? Firstly, designers like me get very easily irritated by design trends which are equally ubiquitously popular and unimaginative. Secondly, a joke can get very tired, very quickly. And thirdly – it’s almost certainly time to stop keeping calm and carrying on with KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.
(photo of KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster from the Barter Books website www.keepcalmhome.com)