Have a nice day! The message may have become inanely irritating, but the bright-yellow smiley face is the single most influential and copied design icon ever created – and it still stands up today in the world of Internet chat.
To some, the smiley face icon is an horrendous, over-abused smug-faced design that symbolizes rampant commercialism and a mindless service culture. To others, it’s the ultimate peace symbol that has survived decades to spread its message of happiness around the world. Whatever your feelings, one thing is clear: as a graphical element, it’s probably the best example of how a single piece of art has achieved unprecedented widespread coverage – and how something as simple as a yellow circle with a few black lines can have influenced design to the extent it has.
Created in 1963 in the US by Harvey R Ball as part of a pacification badge campaign between two recently merged companies, the smiley face – like many classic designs – is a tale of inspirational art and function, tempered with creative calamity. Ball says he simply made a circle, and added a smile for a mouth on yellow paper, “because it was sunshiny and bright”. However, flipping it upside down turned it into a frown, so Ball added two eyes, and the smiley face as was born.
Yet Ball didn’t copyright his “friendship campaign” design – and it fell into the realm of public domain – something that Ball said he never regretted. Ball had originally been paid just $45 – and his attitude to reward made him the obvious candidate for the smiley design: “He was not a money-driven guy,” his son, Charles Ball, said. “He used to say, ‘hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time’.”
The smiley took off in the 1970s. Then, its colouring and message was adopted by the peace movement, and by 1971 over 50 million smiley face badges had been sold. It has been used in countless ads, and in the late 1980s became the face of the Acid House movement. Its influence and shape can be seen in countless products.
Today, the design makes it an ideal candidate for electronic communications: it has formed the basis of emoticons: tiny, iconic graphics that symbolize the emotion of the person who is posting to a chat forum.
One era did come to an end in 2001, though, when Harvey Ball – the man behind what has become the ultimate in design icons – died aged 79.
The smiley face has morphed over the decades, and now forms the basis of a type of communication that has surged on Web forums and chatrooms – emoticons. Taking the basic yellow face, new expressions have been added to capture in pixels the author’s feelings to save typing. The smiley face lives on...
Creative director – Blue Marlin Design, www.bluemarlin.co.uk
Smiley appears to have followed me through life like some sort of mischievous, elf-like, spiritual guide. From 70s’ playgrounds permeated with denim jackets and flares to my post millennium digital life of Internet and mobile phones. In a world of global branding and shrinking cultural diversity, there is a need for universal language and symbology that transcends age, race, and beliefs – and the Smiley is a shining example of how possible this is. Coca-Cola eat your heart out.
Senior designer – Cimex, www.cimex.com
The key to the success of the Smiley is simplicity. Its iconic design allows it to be used across all cultures, irrespective of language, and although its meaning can be open to interpretation, its core message is positive. First developed as a morale-boosting symbol for an insurance company, it has been used to deliver the same optimistic message in a diverse range of contexts: as a peace symbol in the Vietnam war; as a ‘well-done’ from a teacher, and more recently as emoticons in all forms of ecommunication.
Managing director – Red Echo Design, www.red-echo.com
Cheer someone up in the office, add a bit of credibility at the rave ‘back in the day’, graffiti, Forrest Gump – the smiley face is everywhere. The reason is simplicity. The distinctive yellow circle and a beaming face stripped down to its bare essence, allows it to cross over into cultures globally. Ask a child from Manhattan to Outer Mongolia to draw a smiley face and they would probably oblige… with a beaming grin!