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Keep calm and read on

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June 14 2011

“Keep Calm and Carry On” (Photo: redux, Flickr)

We’ve all seen it. It’s on posters, T-shirts, pillows, notebooks, buttons and iPhone cases.

There are multiple Tumblr blogs dedicated to its multitude of variants: “Keep Calm and Use the Force,” “Keep Calm and Carry On My Wayward Son,” “Keep Calm and Beam Me Up Scotty.”

As a designer I am visually assaulted and overwhelmed by the enormous amount of adaptations the “Keep Calm and Carry On” print has seen. However, upon searching deeper into the mystery of this culturally iconic print, there's a history filled with war, panic, and invasion.

“Keep Calm and Obi Wan,” just a few of the posters inspired by the original

First published and produced by the Ministry of Information in 1939 by an unknown civil servant at the beginning of WWII, “Keep Calm and Carry On” was intended to help raise the morale of British citizens in case Britian was invaded by Germany. A straightforward and direct typographic message was chosen accompanied by an illustration of the King’s crown. The King’s crown was included to ensure the public would identify that this was a message from the King to his people.

Although “Keep Calm” is now widely known, the poster originated with a series of two other prints which were more prevalent during war time. The two additional installments in the series read, “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” and “Freedom is in Peril, Defend It With All Your Might.”

“Keep Calm and Carry On” was the third of the series because its intention was to manage the panic stricken citizens of Britain in the event Germany was successful with its invasion.

“Keep Calm” was one of three posters created by the Ministry of Information in 1939

So why has “Keep Calm” become such a worldwide cultural icon over the past 10 years?

In the year 2000, a copy of the print surfaced at Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland. Stuart and Mary Manley discovered the print while going through a set of books Mr. Manley bought at an auction. When Manley discovered it, he liked the print so much he decided to frame and hang it on his shop wall. From there, patrons of the store inquired about the poster and asked if they could obtain a copy for their homes. Since that day the Manley’s estimate they have sold around 41,000 prints.

What makes this statement resonate with so many people? Perhaps Dr. Lesley Prince, a social psychology professor at Birmingham University, said it best:

It is a quiet, calm, authoritative, no-bullshit voice of reason… It's not about British stiff upper lip, really. The point is that people have been sold a lie since the 1970s. They were promised the earth and now they're worried about everything—their jobs, their homes, their bank, their money, their pension. This is saying, look, somebody out there knows what's going on, and it'll be all right.

Currently there are only two known original prints of “Keep Calm” outside of British Government archives, making the original posters extremely rare.

WartimePosters point out that most images of the poster you see today are inaccurate. “The lettering is usually incorrectly spaced and aligned, the crown image differs, and the color is incorrect… The design was reproduced and not photocopied and therefore not accurate.” A high-resolution scan of the original 1939 poster can be seen here, its dimensions are 19.75" wide by 29.5" tall.

Hopefully next time you come across this poster or one of its many variations, a second you can look it with a little less distain and more of an appreciation for its historical significance.

Thomas Wilder is a multidisciplinary designer living and working in New York City. He has worked with clients such as, Tiger Woods, and NYEHAUS. He graduated from Penn State University with a Bachelor of Design in Graphic Design. You can follow him at @ThomasWilder.

Filed under: culture

By Thomas Wilder