The writing's on the wall: How we fell in love with the poster

In the Eighties, Katharine Hamnett put catchy slogans on our T-shirts; now witty words and clever catchphrases dominate our homes.

Huma Qureshi
Friday 24 December 2010 01:00

They say a picture paints a thousand words. But lately, it seems the opposite is true – except instead of a thousand words, you really only need a few cleverly chosen ones.

You could say it all started with "Keep Calm And Carry On". Designed in 1939 by an anonymous civil servant, the poster was created to offer comfort to the country in case of a German invasion. The invasion never happened of course, and the poster remained largely unseen except by the eyes of few officials. All that changed in 2005 when a couple discovered an original copy, framed it and put it in their book store, sparking no end of requests from customers who wanted one too. Its popularity peaked last year, as "Keep Calm And Carry On" became the slogan for all-things recession-related.

But it's not the only statement we're putting on our walls. From "Keep Calm", we got "Shut Up And Deal With It", "When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade" and the short, sweet and slightly clichéd "Carpe Diem" to name but a few. Slogans, quotes, lyrics, epigrams and proverbs our grannies used to say are making their way onto our walls as posters and prints. It's like having a "quote of the day" every day. Is mainstream art and design having a word moment right now?

"There are more typographic word prints commercially available since the 'Keep Calm And Carry On' poster became so popular several years ago," says Hayley Thwaites, who co-owns the Keep Calm Gallery with her partner Lucas Lepola. "Its popularity has led to demand for hundreds of typographic art posters, some which are direct parodies of 'Keep Calm And Carry On', and some which say something meaningful and make for really wonderful, timeless pieces of art."

At the Keep Calm Gallery (which, incidentally, sells a lot more prints than just the poster it is named after), favourites among customers include the slogans "Eat Your Greens", "Wake Up And Smell The Coffee" and "Make Your Own Path". Recently, a limited edition print by type designer and artist Seb Lester, reading "I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream," sold out within days. The quote comes from Van Gogh and, says Thwaites, "resonated with the artist so much he had to do something with it".

So what is it about a good old saying, practical or poetic, that makes us want to plaster it up onto our walls?

"Words influence a lot of artists and designers and people will often have a statement, or several, which they live by, or makes them smile," says Thwaites. "It's more personal to hang a poster up, which reflects what you're about, rather than an image which might not have much meaning to you at all."

Meanwhile, students at the University College Falmouth are decorating their walls with posters a little more unique than those of favourite bands or movies. As part of a graduate design project called Advice To Sink In Slowly, each fresher is handed a poster at the start of the year, which offers a piece of advice. The posters are created by design graduates who've just left the university themselves. John Stanbury, who founded the initiative in 2006, says: "It's a combination of design and practical advice, something that's decorative but that holds a positive purpose too – I call it design that's communicative."

The posters, which are stunningly unique, occasionally funny and often poignant, include "Work Hard, Make Beautiful Things" (a gorgeous graphic print with layered text), "Let Go Of What You Think You Know" (a pencil-drawn child releasing a balloon) and a personal favourite of Stanbury's, "Be Yourself" (a jewel-coloured hummingbird flying out among black and white pigeons). "Everyone has a piece of advice which they wish they'd known earlier, and writing it down in design form is a way of connecting with someone, and passing it on. It's a way to hand down wisdom and weakness, but with style," says Stanbury.

Advice To Sink In Slowly has proved hugely successful, and not just at the university. In the last year, the website slowly emerged on the radar of design bloggers everywhere, leading to international demand for the posters – much to Stanbury's surprise. "One thing led to another, and we started receiving emails from people wanting to buy the graduates' posters to put up in their own homes. We now ship them worldwide."

For Lepola and Thwaites, who design their own statement prints for their gallery, inspiration for their word art sometimes comes closer to home. "The sayings we choose for our own work comes from growing up. My grandad has told me to 'Carpe Diem' for as long as I can remember, and as a lazy teenager, I was always told to 'Rise and Shine' – both are sayings we've made into posters," says Lepola.

Art consultant Sarah Kershaw, founder of Kershaw Matthews Fine Art Services in New York, says the combination of words, art and design is far from new, but that this kind of typographic art is seeing a popular resurgence as part of the on-going appetite for all things vintage.

"Word art in the form of colloquial sayings or a bit of old-fashioned advice, is part of that retro trend for nostalgia that's appearing in every area of design and culture right now," says Kershaw. "They're playful – these are messages that speak to everyone and have been passed down as proverbs or epigrams through generations. And they are also a mainstream, accessible version of serious, conceptual art – American artists Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger used to communicate messages in their artwork all the time, like Holzer's "Protect Me From What I Want" and Kruger's "I Shop, Therefore I Am".

A poster such as "He Who Cares Wins" (a Keep Calm Gallery print) might not compare to Holzer or Kruger, but it's a simple extension of the idea that words are direct and have impact, when designed in a style that catches your eye.

Not all word prints quite work though; there's a fine line between posters which pull off being quirky cool or plain witty and those which slip into being overly twee and Hallmark sentimental – some of the latter include "Forget Me Not" and "Tomorrow Is A Day With No Mistakes In It Yet" over at "Not On The High Street".

Phil Abel founded Hand and Eye letterpress printers in London in 1985. Among his prints is one featuring a quote from Ernest Hemingway (or Mark Twain; no one quite knows who to attribute it to), which reads "Always Do Sober What You Said You'd Do Drunk This Will Teach You To Keep Your Mouth Shut."

"There certainly is a trend for retro, but we try hard not to make our work backward-looking or pastiche," explains Abel. "Always Do Sober was printed because we thought the line was amusing; we thought others might too."

The reasons why we're falling for typography are plentiful, whether it's because the words make us laugh, the design or the style – prints which are letterpressed, whereby you can see and feel the deep impression of each letter individually blocked onto paper, make for rare limited editions which typography fans are quick to snap up.

But Martin Skinner, associate professor of psychology and social psychologist at the University of Warwick, says that buying into anything which carries a vibe of vintage or retro about it, is part of a self-conscious way of dealing with times of difficulty.

"There's a tendency, and therefore maybe a trend, to be ironically stoic about the current economic downturn, because irony is the attitude of the times among a broad section of society," he says. "Something like the 'Keep Calm' poster is a way of quoting another simple, more straightforward and committed time – but it's done in a way that is gently mocking that time, and gently mocking ourselves."

But for Thwaites and Lepola, it's all a lot more simple. "We can't claim that a motivational poster will gloss over the worst of times. But the written or typed word can have a universal impact. And if a sentiment is important enough to you that it is in your mind during tough times, to have those words on your wall can really serve as a great daily reminder to keep your chin up."


* Keep Calm Gallery (; 0207 358 8161)

* Advice to Sink in Slowly(

* Hand And Eye Letterpress ( 488 9800)

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