It is the face that launched a thousand (and more) emoticons. It is the ubiquitous SMILEY! Probably one of the most recognizable icons across the world, this simple graphic had humble beginnings, and an interesting history.
The original version was created in 1963 by an American graphic artist and ad man Harvey Ross Ball. He was commissioned by an insurance company that had recently been merged with another, and was facing low employee morale. His brief was to create a visual icon to accompany a morale-boosting ‘friendship campaign’ that the company was planning to launch.
Harvey Ball picked up a black pen and a yellow piece of paper and started with just a grinning mouth on a perfect circle. Then he realised that this could be easily inverted to send a “frowney” message, and he added the small oval eyes. The left eye was deliberately created slightly smaller than the right, and the right side of the mouth thicker, larger and slightly off centre, in order to humanize the drawing through its imperfection. Thus emerged the world’s first Smiley Face! The design took Harvey ten minutes, and he was paid $45 for it.
The company first produced this design on a hundred buttons with a 7/8 inch radius, for its employees. But soon their clients also started requesting these, and the company ordered thousands of buttons. Soon the face started appearing on posters and signs also. It is not known to what extent it boosted morale, but the round yellow graphic made up only of two dots and a lopsided line was an instant hit!
Neither Harvey Ball nor the company had thought of taking a trademark or copyright on the design. With its unanticipated popularity, it was only a matter of time before the immense commercial potential of this was exploited. In the early 1970s, two brothers Bernard and Murray Spain added the tagline ‘Have a happy day’ (later changed to ‘Have a nice day’) and copyrighted the logo/slogan combination in 1971. The Spain brothers sold an estimated 50 million Smiley Face buttons, as well as an avalanche of other Smiley merchandise including coffee mugs, T-shirts, posters and, you name it… Beginning in 1996, Walmart tried to claim ownership of the design which they started using in their stores and TV ads. The disputed case dragged on for 10 years before they lost their claim to the Smiley Face.
Over the years as Harvey Ball saw how his simple idea for sharing a smile had changed. He observed that “Smiley has become so commercialized that its original message of spreading good will and good cheer has all but disappeared. I needed to do something to change that.” In 1999, he announced the formation of the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation, a charitable trust that supports various children’s causes. Its slogan is “Do an act of kindness – help one person smile!”
Harvey Ball died in 2001 at the age of 79. He never regretted the fact that he did not make a penny more than $45 from the million-dollar industry that his Smiley spawned. He was satisfied that the smiling face, “has gone around the world. It’s reached everybody. Its message is as good as you can get.” Proud to be its creator, he often said, “I made the world smile.”
To spread his message, the first Friday in October is celebrated as World Smile Day. A reminder that a smile can make a difference!