Discover the story behind this pop culture icon originally designed by Harvey Ball to boost staff morale
The oldest known example of a smiley face dates back to 1700 BC: a nearly-4000-year-old ceramic pot excavated near Turkey’s border with Syria features the faint markings of two dots and a curved line.
Yet the ubiquitous yellow smiley face that is a pop culture icon around the world–and would become part of a digital language in the new millennium–is considered to have been created in 1963 in Worcester, Massachusetts by an artist called Harvey Ball.
Who was Harvey Ball?
Harvey Ball was born in Worcester in 1921. In pursuit of a career in the creative sector, he enrolled at the Worcester Art Museum School after graduating from high school.
After serving in the army during WWII, Ball returned to his hometown where he was hired by different advertising agencies before eventually setting up his own company, Harvey Ball Art & Advertising, in 1959.
Among his clients, he was hired by the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of America to create a symbol for a campaign to boost morale after a series of mergers and acquisitions that had left members of staff feeling uneasy.
The birth of the iconic yellow smiley face
Ball was asked to sketch a design to be used for buttons. His design originally consisted of a circle containing just a mouth, but Ball later decided to add eyes to ensure that the button wouldn’t be turned upside down and made into a frown.
He chose the color yellow so that the design resembled the sun and deliberately drew one eye slightly smaller than the other to humanize the face through imperfection.
The company used the smiley face on buttons, posters, and signs and it became an instant success. State Mutual Life Assurance Company of America eventually handed out hundreds of thousands of yellow smiley buttons in the 1960s.
Harvey Ball earned just $45 for his yellow smiley design. Neither State Mutual Life Assurance Company of America nor Ball himself had copyrighted the design, and soon smileys were everywhere.
In 1970, brothers Bernard and Murray Spain trademarked a modified version alongside the phrase ‘Have a happy day,’ which was later changed to ‘Have a nice day!’. Within a couple of years, they had sold an estimated 50 million smiley face buttons, as well as smiley face posters, mugs, T-shirts, and much more.
In 1972, French journalist Franklin Loufrani registered the Smiley trademark for commercial use when he started using it to highlight the rare instances of good news in the newspaper France Soir. His son Nicolas went on to build an empire, creating the Smiley Company, which became embroiled in a court case with Walmart in the 1990s when the retail giant began using the smiley face in stores and TV ads.
In the 1980s, the smiley was appropriated by London’s rave culture, with the legendary club Shoom being one of the first to adopt the symbol for promotional material for acid house nights–smiley faces would even end up being printed on ecstasy pills. A 1988 cover of the UK music magazine NME featured art editor Justin Langlands dressed up as a police officer tearing a smiley poster in half next to the headline: ‘Acid Crackdown. Panic in the streets of London?’.
Grunge band Nirvana reinvented the smiley to create one of the most iconic band logos of all time, switching the eyes for crosses, adding a sticking-out tongue, and inverting the colors.
With the birth of emojis, the yellow smiley face became part of a new digital language, with phone and internet users using them as a simple way to communicate information. In October 2010, emojis were officially accepted to the Unicode Standard. The Oxford Dictionary chose the tears-of-joy emoji as its word of the year in 2015 and each year, on July 17, World Emoji Day is celebrated.
Harvey’s son Charles Ball was once asked whether his father ever regretted the missed opportunity to copyright his design, to which he replied, “he was not a money-driven guy.”
World Smile Day
Seeing the overwhelming commercialization of his design, the original purpose of which had been to simply boost happiness, Harvey Ball created “World Smile Day” in 1999.
It is observed on the 1st Friday in October and is dedicated to “good cheer and good works.” The catchphrase for the day is “Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile.”
In 2001, the same year that his father passed away, Charles Ball further tried to reclaim the optimistic legacy of his father’s creation by starting the World Smile Foundation, which donates money to grass-roots charitable efforts that otherwise receive little attention or funding.
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