When an icon becomes a meme

There are probably very few people left in the English-speaking world who haven’t seen the “Keep Calm and Carry On” image in one form or another. Over the past decade it has been copied, reproduced and altered to fit almost every possible message and communications platform. So my question, for the last of my icon posts, is why did this image become more than just another symbol? And how does an image become a meme?

The original story of the image has recently gotten buried in a flood of parodies but its worth remembering that, not all that long ago, it struck a cord with people during the financial market meltdown of 2008-2009.  Barter Books, the store that found the poster and brought the image to the market has created a really good short video that tells the story of how a generic World War II propaganda poster became an icon 60 years after it was first published.

So my interest is how this icon made the leap to being a meme – an idea that spreads throughout our culture and acts as a carrier for larger ideas or concepts. Malcolm Gladwell referred to memes as “an idea that behaves like a virus with no one is really in control, replicating in a decentralized manner.”

In trying to understand how an icon becomes a meme, it appears that a number of things need to be in alignment. Initially the icon needs to capture the viewers’ imagination or speak to a sentiment that is prevalent in the culture at large. Secondly, in order to spread freely, no one person or organization can own it or make a trademark claim to it. As well, it has to be easy enough for non-designers to reproduce easily in a professional enough manner. Lastly, it has to have the flexibility to be reinterpreted by thousands of people without losing its connection to the original icon.

keepcalmSo what is the next meme? We have seen this year how the combination the internet and social media can take an idea – such as Kony 2012 or Gangnam Style – from obscurity and turn it into a global attention pretty much overnight. So while there are a few contenders for knocking “Keep Calm and Carry On” from its perch as the “go to” visual meme the is no singular icon ready to take it place. At least, not this week.


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