Jonathan Dobres

keep calm and carry on

Imagine that it’s 1939 and your country is about to enter World War II. Further imagine that you work for your country’s government, and you have been charged with designing a series of posters with the goal of calming the public in the event of mounting catastrophe. Also, you are British. Immersed in such a situation and thrown a dash of inspiration, you might—I say again, might—come up with something half as brilliant as what was actually designed for this purpose: “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

“Keep Calm” was the final poster in a series of three commissioned by the Ministry of Information. It was intended to be used only if Britain was invaded by the Germans. I mean, really, how stiff upper lip can you get? There you are knee-deep in Nazis and the King’s message to you is simply, “Keep calm and carry on.” Of course, Britain was never invaded and this third poster never saw the light of day (though one supposes that this might have been an ideal message during the Blitz). The poster was forgotten by history until 2000, when an errant copy turned up at Barter Books of Northumberland.

The bold color, stark typography, minimalistic Crown symbol, and wonderfully succinct slogan combined to create something that was both emblematic of the era and perfectly British, all in little more than five words. Suddenly I remembered that the Southerner’s birthday had just passed (don’t look at me like that, he’s not big on presents) and that he has an affection for all things Royal. It became clear that I had no choice but to buy him a copy for his own especial privilege and certain knowledge.1

Here’s where things get tricky. Crown Copyright on “Keep Calm and Carry On” expired more than twenty years ago. Combined with the poster’s simple design and immense popularity,2 this means that there are a lot of knock-offs floating around the internet. All of them feature the Crown, but only some of them use an accurate font. Since the poster is almost all text, the accuracy of the typeface is critical. Barter Books claims to have the original poster. I have no reason to disbelieve them, but some of their merchandise uses a font that is obviously different from the original’s (note the way the letter “C” terminates, as well as differences in the “M”). The match is close, but not close enough, which is deeply confusing. (even more rhyming than the original!) seems to employ the same near-miss typeface, except on the book (weird, right?). Don’t even get me started on the cheap and highly inaccurate reproductions available on Amazon, which appear to use Adobe’s Myriad Pro. While Myriad has the benefit of being free, it looks nothing like the original 1939 letterforms (particularly noticeable on the letters “K”, “C”, and “M”).

So, Mr. Amateur Typographer, you might be thinking, what’s the correct typeface, then? The answer, I think, is that it doesn’t exist. Given the way that posters were produced in 1939 and the limited set of letters that “Keep Calm” employs, it’s more likely that the text was drawn by hand specifically for the job. This means that the only accurate type sample is on the original poster itself. I found one vender on eBay who had gorgeous, accurate prints for sale, but because I live in a disreputable neighborhood the print went missing somewhere between the confirmed delivery and my arriving home. Luckily enough, Wikipedia’s version of the poster appears to be a direct copy of the original, and even better, it’s in SVG format. This means that provided you have a suitable vector graphics application and a decent print shop, you can make your own crisp, typographically accurate copy in any color or size you like. As it happens, I have both, so today I’ll be able to present the Southerner with his long-overdue birthday gift. 24x36 inches big, violently red, and defiantly British.

  1. For why that sentence is funny, please see Paragraph VI of the Charter of Maryland, 1632. 

  2. Some people believe that “Keep Calm and Carry On” is too popular, as this thread on Apartment Therapy indicates. One commenter goes so far as to write, “I couldn’t stand to have my Keep Calm print at home anymore, it seems like such a cliché.” This is, of course, idiotic. In my opinion, a classic never goes out of style.