Thirty Thousand Streets

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Keep Calm

There's that phonemenon, largely subjective I suspect, but often ascribed to synchronicity, where something you were previously unaware of – such as a word, or phrase – suddenly becomes apparently ubiquitous, and you start hearing it on a near daily basis. (Such a thing happened last year, when everyone started saying "├╝ber" rather too much).

It is possible that this is largely due to the brain's subconscious yearning to identify patterns, but also, on occasion can arise simply from a popular trend, or something that cleaves to the public imagination, at any given moment (Myleene Klasse, for instance).

Into the latter category would I place that poster, the wartime public broadcast "Keep Calm and Carry on" (you must, by now, know the one).

Now, I realise that this is an artifact of some antiquity, dating from the Second World War, but prior to the end of last year, I was cheerfully unaware of its existence. Then, one day I saw it, and suddenly it seemed to be EVERYWHERE. I see it on a near weekly basis now, peering at me from the corner of an interiors photoshoot in the the pages of a broadsheet weekend magazine; gurning at me from a web browser, or acting as a kind of serving suggestion in the window of a local framers.

More disconcerting still is the wacky meme of appropriating said, rather staid wartime propaganda, and 'subverting' its message. In fact, I think I might start a niche museum dedicated to archiving permutations of this specific visual macro-trend.

The theatre of Advertising relies on cliches, which act as a kind of shorthand – effectively conveying a set of associations with relative economy, by setting the context. You want to imply that your brand is 'for the people?' (ie: cheap) simply effect a poster campaign aping those Soviet-era propaganda posters you went and saw at the Tate the other year. Y'know, flip the 'R's around, lots of red, raised fists, that sort of thing. Simple.

Almost too simple. Simple to the point of being hackneyed, in fact. But I suppose it takes time for what are by now slightly weary tropes to worm their way into the visual vernacular. What I do find a fascinating enigma, is the notional tipping point at which something like this attains critical mass, and becomes recognisably iconic – to the extent that it's no longer simply a rather simple bit of typography, than a meme, or trope. What precipitated this little bit of design's inauguration into the national Consciousness's golden hall of design fame, alongside The Routemaster?

God knows. But what I suspect from experience is we're probably going to see a lot more of this rather unassuming poster in the future in some form, be it parody or pastiche. The latest example I've secured for my rogues gallery of such examples I spotted on the Peckham Road the other night, which I present for your appraisal here.

I can't help but think that the designer here has aped the typographical layout of the original to the detriment of the poster's actual message... quite aside from the phrasal emphasis feeling slightly wonky – "ANYTHING YOU SAY MAY (be taken down) AND USED AS EVIDENCE" – the poster felt to me like some kind of wagging finger aimed at prospective criminals, when actually the two little lines of copy at the bottom reveal that the poster's purported message is about a police pledge to use confidential informant's testimony as evidence in court.

Still, I suppose it does at least stylistically fitting in the context of a message originating from the state, even if it does look a bit 'V for Vendetta'. We live in an incredibly pluralistic, visual culture (someone quoted "alter modern" at me the other day) where entire historical visual languages are there to be cherry-picked, just a Google search away. In such an age 'appropriateness' is perhaps the best a designer can aspire to, when there is no single master 'design narrative'.

PS: has anyone else spotted any other hacks of this bit of iconic design? I'd be interested in seeing them.


sigh9 said...

there's a whole stream of them at:
this flickr account

The Eyechild said...

Ah, cheers dude! That should probably have been my first point of call...