The origin of the smiley

The origin of the smiley

Anabel Herrera Published on 3/18/2024

It’s one of the most memorable scenes in the movie “Forrest Gump” (1994), in which the famous character played by Tim Hanks journeys across the United States starring in some of the most important episodes in the country’s history. One of the funniest moments comes when he meets a man who has gone broke in the T-shirt business. He explains that he wants to put a face on one of his garments, but he doesn’t know how to draw and doesn’t have a camera. At that moment, a truck passes by, splashing Forrest’s face with mud. As he wipes himself with his yellow T-shirt, he leaves a stain that resembles a happy face. “Have a nice day,” he says as he bids farewell to the businessman, who ends up making a fortune from this serendipitous invention.

And so the smiley was born. At least in fiction, because in real life the inventor of this graphic, as simple as it is successful, was Harvey Ball.

An image to boost moral.

The American artist and designer, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1921, had forged a career within various advertising agencies before creating his own, Harvey Ball Art & Advertising, in 1959. The commission that would forever change his life came in 1963 from State Mutual Life Assurance. The insurance firm has just gone through a number of mergers and acquisitions which had led to a climate of uncertainty among its workers. They asked Ball to create an image of happiness that could be used on badges and stickers, among other formats, in an attempt to boost morale.

Harvey Ball (Wikimedia Commons):

The elements of the smiling face – which were designed by the artist in just 10 minutes, according to his own statements in various interviews – were the bright yellow background, like the sun, the perfect circular shape, and a slight asymmetry between the eyes and the mouth to humanise the face. The phenomenon among State Mutual Life Assurance employees and customers was immediate. But neither the insurer nor Ball, who charged $45 for his work, considered patenting the design.

The battle for the exploitation of rights

In the early 1970s. the commercial battle for control of the fun symbol of happiness began. Brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, owners of the greeting card company Hallmark, registered the face together with the phrase “Have a nice day” and turned it into an asset. Cards, posters, lamps, stickers, mugs, badges… In just two years, they earned two million dollars with this merchandising phenomenon that, according to the brothers, helped to restore the optimism of American citizens after the Vietnam War.

Although half the planet took the smiley as a sign of freedom, it is also true that it gained many detractors, who saw it is a childish symbol. It is a recurring element in the “Watchmen” comic book series, for example, but stained with blood in a contrast to the image of perpetual happiness.


But the first person to register the icon as a trademark was Franklin Loufrani, conscious of its economic potential. The French journalist began using the yellow face to highlight good news in the newspaper where he worked, France Soir, an idea which was adopted by many other newspapers internationally. By the 1980s, he had managed to print the face on all kinds of objects, as well as turning it into the symbol of the counterculture associated with electronic music or grunge. Even Nirvana made it into their logo – disoriented of course.

The Smiley Company passed into the hands of the founder’s son, Nicolas Loufrani, towards the start of the 21st century. He was responsible for introducing the smiley to digital communication by adding a variety of facial expressions to the original drawing. Who doesn’t send a ton of emojis to their contacts by WhatsApp every day?  The revolution has been such that, in 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary named the smiley face emoji with tears of laughter into its word of the year.

World Smile Day

Today, The Smiley Company is a global brand that generates annual sales worth more than $500 million through fashion, food, homewards, beauty and even art projects – the famous Banksy smiling cop, for example.

So what happened to Harvey Ball? He never claimed financial compensation for his creation, but he was concerned that the original meaning would be lost due to the over-commercialization of the yellow face in the hands of the Loufrani family. That is why, in 1999, he had the idea for World Smile Day, which has been celebrated since then on the first Friday of October each year.

After the designer’s death in 2001, his son created the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation in Worcester, which in 2012 finally managed to register the smiley face in Ball’s name for the first time.