Amidst all this talk of war, international terrorism and financial meltdown, one of the odd curiosities of the world today is the Keep Calm and Carry On meme. As has been covered recently both on the BBC and the Guardian. It’s been rich pickings for academics to fall over analysing quite what it is about it – nostalgia for a more sedate and less emotional time possibly, or as a counterpoint to the usual hysteria we’re continually exposed to.
Not everybody likes it. James Graham dislikes the message it conveys:
?Carrying on? is a much overrated concept. The fact is we can?t carry on as we have done for the past twenty, thirty years. The economic collapse was caused by people spending far too much time ?keeping calm and carrying on? instead of questioning what they were doing. Climate change is a similar tragedy waiting to happen. In whose interest is all this ?calm? supposed to serve?
The meaning depends on your meaning of “calm” – “calm” could mean sedated, blissful, oblivious, or it can also mean unflappable, clear-headed, rational, thoughtful. The designers of the poster probably had in mind the former – with a putative invasion of Britain under way it was designed to reassure the population, but in an age where the government and media both love to terrify the fuck out of us with tales of non-existent threats, keeping calm has come to mean the latter sense. Propaganda from the last genuine threat to this country’s existence has been reclaimed by geeks to rebuff the insanity surrounding a much lesser threat today.
“Carrying on” I have much less time for; James is absolutely correct in pointing out that carrying on – whether it’s racking up debts to fund our fetish for property, burning away every last hydrocarbon in the Earth’s crust , or thinking democracy can be inflicted with the barrel of a gun – is simply not an option unless we want to bring down civilisation with it. But all the changes we are going to have to make have to be orderly and not in panic or anger – so keeping calm is essential.
There may be other reasons why the poster is so popular. Its rediscovery has coincided with a trend in sans serif fonts and in particular Gill Sans and Johnston, both of which strongly resemble the font on the poster. As a result designers love it – its boldness and minimalism reflect a current trend, while its simple design lends itself to be remixed or mashed up with ease. There’s a Flickr pool devoted to variants on the poster, and Ben Terrett has summed it up: “We might as well admit we’re addicted“. Not only is it easy to replicate or parody but the web allows us to pass on homages and pisstakes with ease. It’s ironic that a paper propaganda poster, supposedly the antithesis of Web 2.0 and digital, conversation-led media, ends up being so popular.
As a result, it was only a matter of time before the meme goes full circle and it ends up being used for the current government’s propaganda. And lo and behold, the Home Office are using the design in their current “You have the right NOT to remain silent” campaign. Unfortunately for them, it bombs really horribly. The adverts are too clever for their own good, relying on a play on words: “We’d like to give you a good talking to” in this case means they want to share more information with local communities and get their feedback. I’m sure there was much back-slapping at the ad agency when they came up with it
When you have a design that is all about one simple, bold message, smug irony and nuance go out of the window. At first glance I thought the posters were just a new level of Home Office authoritarianism with a design twist; the real message behind them wasn’t clear until I looked up on the Home Office website; I wonder how the 99% of the population who couldn’t be bothered to read the small print think the campaign is really about. The perils of trying to co-opt anything that has been subverted and taken away from you have been laid bare.
A final point on the art form, and even when your message is simple, it can create more questions instead of clarity. Matt Jones’ retort to Keep Calm And Carry On: “Get Excited and Make Things” has had an enthusiastic reaction from bloggers, suggesting that not everyone is content with keeping calm either. But it leaves me with more questions than clarity. Excited about what exactly? Should we really be making more stuff (physical stuff, that is)? Doesn’t this go against the we’re-consuming-too-many-resources concept of unproduct? Making things is cool, but perhaps we need to be a bit, er, calmer about it.