Making do

Could the success of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster represent a hankering for the wartime values of stoicism and simplicity – in graphics, as well as in life? Jim Davies thinks so

We all know what goes around comes around. Ties turn from kippers to bootlaces and back again. Skirt lengths slip up and down like skittish Roman blinds. Helvetica is revered, reviled and revived. Illustration is the new photography; photography is the new illustration. Black is back.

Curves are cool; straight is where it’s at. Some of us have been around long enough to see design trends come around twice – though I never thought I’d see the day when shoulder pads put in a reappearance.

While this endless cycle of rediscovery and reinvention seems inevitable, you have to ask, ’Why do certain themes pop back up at certain times?’ Why does the design vernacular of one particular era ring so true with another? There seems to be a glint of an answer in the curious case of Keep Calm and Carry On. This is the World War II Ministry of Information poster that spawned a small industry some 70 years later.

In the original, the slogan is rendered in a stark white sans on a red background, with a simple George VI crown atop. Now it comes in any number of colour combinations on key fobs and pendants, mouse mats and T-shirts, mugs and shopping bags. There’s even a decidedly strange reincarnation as a retro 1970s flight bag. You can get tea towels from John Lewis, a Stereophonics CD going by the same name, or take your pick from any number of nick-nacks at

The phenomenon reached its peak last year when we were wallowing in recessionary gloom. It seemed to evoke perfectly a spirit of quiet British stoicism – we’ve been through crises before, and we’ll jolly well get through this one. Even our beleaguered Prime Minister had one on the wall at Number Ten. Oddly though, Keep Calm and Carry On was never officially released during the war. Though 2.5 million copies were printed, they were to be used only as a last resort if the Nazis actually staged an invasion. It was only when a Northumberland bookseller came across an original poster in a pile of dusty old books in 2000 that the rather fine slogan finally found its audience.

Spreading the net just a bit wider, it’s amazing to think how relevant and stylistically on-trend other classic WWII posters are today. Work by the masters Abram Games and FHK Henrion have an urgency and graphic simplicity consultancies are still desperately striving to recreate. There are echoes of their style in accomplished contemporary designer-illustrators like Anthony Burrill and Jessie Ford. And the impeccable and economic Fougasse can be seen in the faux naif drawings of Paul Davis and Tom Gauld.

And eerily, the wartime messages have become strikingly apt to the world we live in now. We may not exactly be digging for victory, but worries about provenance and carbon footprint have seen a surge in vegetable growing and demand for local produce. We’re certainly being encouraged to ’Make do and mend’, to go a bit easier on the world’s resources – so perhaps it’s time for the ’Squander bug’ to make a comeback. Post 9/11 and 7/7, there’s that slight sense of always looking over your shoulder, caught so perfectly in the paranoia of the ’Careless talk costs lives’ posters.

Of course, times aren’t nearly as desperate as they were in 1941, but there’s enough of a shadow over the future to give us a similar sense of worry and foreboding. At this juncture, there’s only one piece of advice I can give you… ’Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring!’

Jim Davies is founder of copywriting studio Total Content


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