The Tribble with Keeping Calm

Keep Calm banner

The original “Keep Calm” banner gracing my office door.

I first saw the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” while eating in a British restaurant in Kansas. The words were printed boldly in white on a red banner. It was just what I needed to see. At the time I needed a tough mantra to deal with a sad and difficult time in my life—my mother had just died, and my brother and I were faced with the task of dealing with our grief while also trying to prepare for an estate sale. I bought a banner just like it for myself at the local Brit store, where I learned that it was originally a poster created to keep London citizens positive during WWII (although never used). I hung it in Mom’s house in a place where I would see it every day while I sifted through a lifetime of our precious memories deciding what to keep and what to discard. It served to give me a strong positive vibe when I wanted to scream and run away. It eventually came home with me and graces my office door. It still gives me strength.

Unfortunately, what was unique and important to me at one time seems to have become a bit trite with overuse and rampant mutation. I am fascinated with the copy-and-change phenomenon surrounding this poster. It has become a template for an expansive collection of memes. My understanding of a “meme”: start with one image and keep changing it while retaining some part of the original. One recent example is the photo of a smirking Olympic gymnast which has been inserted into a million different oddball scenes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her face in place of the crown. Would that be a double meme?

Keep Calm banner using Comic Sans

Keep Calm and use Comic Sans!

A basic template is a unification tool—particularly handy for marketing or creating a brand where you want the public to recognize your style while you change the message as needed. It can include particular colors, a specific font or placement of text, or a logo or specific image. If all items are changed but one, we may still recognize the template behind the new design. Even the shape of the background stripped of all visual content can be recognizable (the beauty of logo design). With a copyright free template, such as the “keep calm” poster, the possibilities of new use are endless. Do we change the font, the color, the image of the crown, or the wording? How far can we go before nobody sees the original in the replication?

My turn to participate in this global design challenge! I have always felt that typefaces have personalities and their use can give a message different meanings—sad, serious, happy, modern, antique, etc. It seems very odd when you turn the tables on a design and use a typeface that gives a different meaning to the original message. I have tried that here, using Comic Sans (as far as I could get from the stiff-upper-lip original font), and indeed, it looks very silly to me, changing the serious tone of the original completely.

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick banner

What Teddy would create if he could meme…
Design by Jane Reed Wilson
Moose art – Clipart by Ron Leishman

I went a step further, wondering what I could do differently while still using Comic Sans. The basic meme theme (sorry, I had to say that) seems to be to insert your own mantra and go. I inserted a quote from one of my favorite presidents, Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. This is not a very “comic” statement, surely, but by replacing the crown with a cartoon moose (symbolic of Teddy’s Bull Moose political party) carrying a stick, something clicked. The image and the type font work together in their own goofy way, and the use of a cartoon and a comic font change this message, too, almost ridiculing it. It’s a long way from the original image while retaining a smidgeon of the original format. Is that the rule? I have now joined the global redesign of the “Keep Calm” poster! I could keep going. But I have other things to do now.

Does the replication of this image remind anyone of the original Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”? I love this particular episode. (Spoiler ahead!) It introduced a lovable furry muff-like creature called a “tribble” that bred quickly aboard the Enterprise as the brood fed on a grain shipment. In the end most of the tribbles died (sniff), and it turned out that they were the canary in the coal mine, alerting the crew that the enemy had poisoned the entire shipment. Aside from being poisoned, the tribbles quit breeding if they quit eating. Maybe the way to get this cliché to die is to quit feeding it. Or should it keep mutating? And just be sent somewhere where it “will be no tribble at all”…?

I wonder if the name of the original designer of the poster was Cyrano Jones.

Insert “Keep Calm” into Google and you will find a plethora of links about the subject. I share a few below:

Want to buy the font? Try

Want to make your own “parody” and have it reproduced on a kitchen towel? Apparently I could have saved a few hours messing around in Photoshop (but NO, I had to do it MY way). Here are two links to help you put your mantra to work drying those dishes:

Lastly, read this blog post by typography blogger Gareth Stranks, who has ably explained the history and expressed some of my sentiments about the subject:


About jrwilsondesign

I am a graphic designer and art director with a love of art, nature, words and music and the ways in which they can be combined.
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