From “friendship campaign” to a symbol of counter-culture: An ode to the Smiley
The Smiley means many things to many different people. Here, we tell its origin story, interspersed with interpretations by six creatives expressing their relationship to the symbol through original artworks.
The story of a low-profile creative producing something that goes on to become an iconic symbol is one we hear time and time again. The Nike swoosh, the Smiling Sun, even Harry Beck’s original Tube map. All have humble beginnings but went on to shape culture, be recognised worldwide, and take on a meaning well beyond the creator’s original intentions. One symbol that follows a similar rags-to-riches narrative is the Smiley face. Once a morale-boosting ploy by an insurance company, in the decades since its creation, it came to represent a music movement and wider counter-culture, become a form of daily communication, and appear everywhere from fashion runways to Olympic ceremonies to magazine covers. It is an example of a truly enduring ideogram – a graphic symbol that represents much more than two dots and a curved line.
“When I think about Smiley, it transports me to a place of relaxation. Where all is well. It reminds me a lot of a hallucinogenic, contemplative state of complete bliss.
I sculpted all the shapes by hand with the mouse in ZBrush, where I also painted. I thought about how to represent the vastness of the space in a world format, marked by the presence of Smiley. I brought this idea to the digital environment in a scene rich in details and expressive lights that blend organically with the icon and capture its timelessness. I would like viewers to feel attracted to be in this place. And to admire this explosion of sensations that for me reflects Smiley’s expressiveness in the present time.”
The Smiley first began life in Worcester, Massachusetts in December 1963. Its creator, Harvey Ross Ball, was commissioned by State Mutual Life Assurance Company, a local firm that was facing a problem. Having recently merged with another company, employee morale was low and Ball was brought on board to create a “friendship campaign” – something that would lift spirits and form bonds between workers. He was briefed to draw a smile that would feature on pin badges, posters and desk cards. But realising that wearers could simply turn the badge upside-down in order to form a frown, Ball added a pair of eyes. And thus the Smiley was born. All in all, Ball later recounted, the drawing took less than ten minutes.
Very quickly, the badges took off, gaining a life of their own outside of the company walls and becoming a fully-fledged fad in the early 1970s. This was pushed on by Bernard and Murray Spain, brothers and owners of two Hallmark card shops in Philadelphia who cottoned onto the popularity of the image and swiped it. After adding “Have a Happy Day”, they were able to copyright the image and went on to sell an estimated 50 million badges by 1971. A year later, and on another continent, journalist Franklin Loufrani designed yet another Smiley for the newspaper France-Soir, registering his symbol with the French trademark office that same year. It differed again from Ball’s – this time accompanied by the words “Take the Time to Smile”, as well as being more uniform and closer to the Smiley we are all familiar with today. The act of trademarking the icon is perhaps what led to such widespread use of the symbol as, by the 90s, Franklin and his son Nicholas held trademarks in over 70 countries.
“I feel quite melancholic when I look at the Smiley logo. There lies a sadness in an eternal smile. Always being happy must be torturing for the little yellow guy. I really like this sad happiness in the original Smiley logo. I feel that the symbol is widely overused for all kinds of emotions and has become a shell or ghost version of the original.”
Although muddled in with claims of plagiarism, the notion of the Smiley representing goodwill and cheer was solidified. “It clearly worked,” jokes Ball’s son Charles P. Ball, reflecting on the success of the initial campaign. “[My father] was surprised and bemused,” by the rise in the symbol’s popularity, he continues, “but he always understood the power of a smile and a kind act.” In 1999, Ball founded World Smile Day – today is the 22nd edition – as a way to encourage acts of kindness but also as a reaction against what he saw as the over-commercialisation of the Smiley. He felt its original meaning had been lost in the race to make money as it was plastered on everything from mugs to sweatshirts, so he launched the annual reminder of how impactful a smile or a small act of kindness can be in response. In 2001, after Ball’s death, the World Smile Foundation was formed to honour his memory and continue his work, and Charles now sits as the organisation’s chairman. “Our metrics suggest that hundreds of millions are aware of the day and observe it in some fashion. Smiley has become the one international symbol of goodwill and good cheer,” he explains.
Happening alongside the rise of the Smiley as a symbol of compassion, however, was another cultural movement. A major turning point in its history happened during the Second Summer of Love. Sweeping the UK in 1988, it was defined by acid house dance music, party drugs, and anti-Thatcherite ideologies that promoted unity and love. With parties often taking place in empty factories and warehouses, it was seen by many as a way for the working classes to reclaim the spaces that had been left redundant under Thatcher’s uncompromising policies. In turn, the movement was inherently one of resistance; it was the biggest instance of youth revolution since the 1960s and often involved a battle with authority in some form.
“When I think of the Smiley, I associate it with acid house. I always found it cool how the logo was reinterpreted to promote raves for a music genre. For my Smiley artwork, I wanted to create an illustration that references some of my favourite smiling imagery (Max Headroom smiling in front of a colourful striped CG screen and the blue and yellow “thank you have a nice day” plastic shopping bags). By using Photoshop, I was able to combine these two references into a single frame to create a Smiley with a blue and yellow gradient trail moving across a digital backdrop reminiscent of a CRT screen. To make the illustration appear as if it’s in motion, I experimented with various blending modes, bevel and emboss, blurs and gradient overlays.
“I hope this artwork evokes a feeling of happiness but also a sense of nostalgia. As I was creating the artwork it felt nostalgic because it reminded me of the 2010-2016 era of Tumblr where I'd often see images of Max Headroom reblogged. Max Headroom was before my time but the low res quality of the image reminded me of old video games or cartoons I watched growing up.”
As the movement grew, several clubs came to the fore as the homes of acid house – Shoom and Astoria in London or The Hacienda in Manchester, for example. Plastering the fliers promoting both the illegal raves and club nights was the Smiley face. A symbol of positivity and love, it had been adopted early on by the movement (in large part due to the widespread use of ecstasy) and grew to become an unofficial mascot. Partygoers would adorn their clothing with it or sport its dayglo yellow, meaning, anywhere you saw the Smiley, you knew what you were in store for. While a much-loved facet of youth culture at the time, a large portion of British society saw acid house as a menace and instances involving drug-related deaths and violence only furthered their distrust of everything associated with the movement. In turn, the Smiley became linked with a spirit of anarchy and hedonism. As with anything that finds popularity in a short space of time, its widespread use ultimately contributed to its downfall and many early ravers dropped the Smiley when it became too widespread and therefore uncool. This rebellious image, however, would stick with it forever.
Since then, it’s popped up again and again across popular culture. Around the same time as the Second Summer of Love, a comic titled Watchmen featured a blood-smeared version on its cover, with the icon a motif used to ironically point out grim realities throughout the 12-issue comic. In the 90s, Kurt Cobain adopted a version with crossed-out eyes and a tongue as the logo for Nirvana. In 2007, two design students nodded to it when creating the logo for their new venture, It’s Nice That. It also popped up during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London (on a zorb, no less). More recently, the fashion label Chinatown Market (now Market), which launched in 2016, used the Smiley as its logo and throughout several collections, and it could be spotted across merchandise and promotional material for Travis Scott’s Astroworld in 2018.
Li Ya Wen
“At the beginning, I was trying to think of it from a cultural perspective. The Smiley represents many things, from expression to political subject to history. ‘Buzzed head’ is actually an extension of my ongoing personal project where I draw different buzzed haircuts with patterns on the head. This particular haircut goes way back in history, it transcends cultures and religions – the act of shaving one’s head for me is an empowering move, and could also reflect society. I wanted to break the barrier by adding the Smiley face on top, and also as a new beginning. I hope viewers feel like they’re in a safe space, where they can be odd and be whoever they want to be, as in this mad world we care about what other people think about us all the time (and so do I) and there’s less time to be our authentic self. I hope they can pick up something which gives them comfort or makes them smile when they see my work, even just a glimpse.”
The 1990s and the advent of the internet, though, would prove to be the decade that defined the Smiley as ubiquitous. It was in 1982 that the first emoticon was used by a computer scientist, Scott Fahlman, at Carnegie Mellon University. It was a simple suggestion, put forward to aid communication between him and his peers on a forum. Anytime one wanted to signal something was a joke, use “:-)”. Anytime something definitely was not a joke, one should use “:-(”. Soon, Carnegie Mellon students were creating their own versions to help express a myriad of emotions and other universities and businesses also caught on. At the time, however, this was only happening on an early version of the internet called the Arpanet, so emoticons weren’t exactly popping off just yet.
Our love (or even need) of a Smiley sent over SMS didn’t properly happen until around 1997, when a Japanese phone company released a mobile that included a set of 90 emojis – a word which actually roughly translates to “pictograph” in English, it has nothing to do with emotions… They were an instant hit for how they allowed the Japanese population to communicate nuance over text and soon other phone companies began releasing their own sets. It’s cliche, but the rest really is history. I challenge you to remember the last time you went a day without seeing a Smiley, or at least a derivate of it in emoji form. Whether it’s an Exploding Head, Nail Polish, or Fire, the Smiley is where it all began.
“I guess the first thing I associate the Smiley with is rave. We’re in Manchester and we get old school ‘Madchester’ thrust down our gullets all the time (please no more black and yellow stripes Peter Hook) but the Smiley kind of transcends that old school “you weren’t there, you don’t know” attitude and still feels like something that is for everyone whether they’re students taking their first Gary at the White Hotel watching Black Haine and Space Afrika through to acid mums and Balearic dads refusing to go home when the baby sitter calls because DJ Paulette is about to go B2B with Luke Unabomber in a working men’s club in Levenshulme.
“A couple of years ago, I moved with my partner to Moss Side in Manchester, the alley behind our gaff was in a pretty sorry state with a lot of fly-tipping and drug use etc, so I slowly started cleaning it up, building planters and planting things (@a.moss.side.alley.greening if you’re interested). Over lockdown, this became a really cathartic distraction and a nice way to meet neighbours that had been sheltering and would come out to talk about what I was planting, so it felt quite natural to reach for imagery of flowers and plants! We work with collage a lot in the studio so I used various yellow and red flora to create the Smiley, this was then scanned in, re-printed using a cheap desktop printer that we’ve found gives images a nice grain, re-scanned, split into cyan, magenta, yellow and black layers and printed on our studio Risograph as a four -colour separation which while being close to the original pushes it a bit more and gives it a texture that we think it unachievable by digital means.
“Hopefully, it raises a smile, it has a little bit of the honey monster to it I think, always a delicious Sunday morning treat with cartoons from when we were kids. We’re going to wheat paste it up along the alley as a big repetitive mural as we ended up with lots of reproductions from the Riso, hopefully, it’ll bring the community some joy!”
Thinking about the Smiley in 2021, on World Smile Day no less, it’s hard to imagine a symbol that has had a bigger impact. That sounds hyperbolic, of course, but what other icon has such humbling beginnings and is now so quotidian? It means so many different things to so many different people too. For some, it’s a symbol of hope and kindness, a simple way to remind someone to smile. “In my father’s original version of the Smiley I see warmth and hopefulness,” Charles explains. For others, it’s a marker of resistance or a reminder of a time when it seemed young people might actually change society for the better. For most, their association with the Smiley is at least something positive or progressive – and it’s these kinds of symbols we need to be championing now more than ever.
“I associate the Smiley with the overt and obscure Smileys/emoticons that you see in Google image searches or in replies on your relative’s Facebook comments. Giving Smiley extra details like teeth and gestures, props ... it goes very very deep and the main ‘☺’ Smiley is just the tip of the iceberg.
“I made this piece in Illustrator – it was reminiscent to the same way I would create the old Brockhampton single cover titles. Things were moving fast once we found our rhythm at that time and felt very exciting. Hopefully, the artwork takes viewers somewhere positive, or sparks inspiration at the very least.”
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.