“KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” was a poster design originally created in 1939 as a series of three motivational posters from the British Government’s Ministry of Information, in order to boost public morale during WWII. The poster was printed in a run of 2.5 million copies, but the government deferred them to storage for use after a potential air raid, and they were never actually hung or distributed. After 1945, all of the prints in storage were destroyed to make pulp (for new paper) and very few of these original prints remain. This design only became an icon of popular culture more recently, when the design was rediscovered, and redistributed on a worldwide scale in the early 2000’s. This image has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that you have probably already seen it printed somewhere on something today. Although Keep Calm and Carry On Ltd. holds a trademark for this exact slogan, the slogan and graphic style have been countlessly replicated, parodied and imitated since the original design’s resurgence in popularity.
The poster design features a bright red background, and the slogan “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” is printed down the majority of the page in a bold, sans serif typeface. Each word sits on its own line, and the text maintains the same point size throughout, aside from the conjunction “AND,“ which sits in-between the other four lines at half the point size. The leading is consistent between all five lines of text, although the letter spacing is a little sloppy. The Tudor Crown, an emblem of the British State, sits on top of the text in the upper middle portion of the composition, as if it is resting on the head of the two EE’s in “KEEP.” The text is centered, and the O’s and C’s have very rounded letterforms. The crown icon and text are white against the bright red background, resulting in a highly contrasting image.
This poster is really interesting because it can be discussed in terms of significance and effectiveness in design from two separate eras in graphic design history: first from its origin as a piece of British propaganda from WWII, and then again with its resurgence and widely appropriated design as a quintessential piece of the postmodern era. Although this design was never utilized for its original purpose, the poster falls in line with typical agitprop of Britain’s WWII poster design. In the event of a catastrophic air raid, the poster was intended to send a message of reassurance from the government to the public, while bolstering loyalty to the crown. Through the message “keep calm and carry on,” the government was urging citizens to remain calm, complacent, and loyal to the crown amidst the atrocities of war. The crown is literally placed on top of the text, and the shape of the text on the page creates a form that alludes to a British soldier. The bright red background also associates with the red uniforms and stoic resilience of the royal army. Although the Ministry of Information toned down their messages a bit after WWI, the other posters of this series were still criticized by the public as sounding manipulative, or patronizing, and were not favorably received.
When a surviving original poster was rediscovered in an old bookstore in London, it became so popular that the “Keep Calm and Carry On” design has come to resemble what is quintessentially British. In the true spirit of postmodernism, this historical design was rehashed, parodied, and used commercially out of its original context with great success. The slogan and Tudor Crown combination have been appropriated for countless other applications. I believe the design is effective today because it still represents the idealized British character and renowned regalia of the British military, but with a more light-hearted sentiment due to its context and commercialization. Today, people can buy this message on a tote or coffee mug on their own free will at retail outlets worldwide.
Fowler, Brittany. “Brits May Roll Their Eyes at ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – but Here’s Why They Secretly Love It.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 23 June 2015. Web. 03 Dec. 2016. <http://www.businessinsider.com/the-surprising-history-of-keep-calm-and-carry-on-2015-6>.
Hatherley, Owen. “Keep Calm and Carry On – the Sinister Message behind the Slogan That Seduced the Nation.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 08 Jan. 2016. Web. 03 Dec. 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/08/keep-calm-and-carry-on-posters-austerity-ubiquity-sinister-implications>.
“Keep Calm and Carry On.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Nov. 2016. Web. 03 Dec. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keep_Calm_and_Carry_On>.