Have you seen or even used one today? Two black eyes, a broad, black grin and a circle the colour of warmth, sunshine and unalloyed happiness. Who doesn’t recognise the smiley face and its immediate, intuitive call to action: to smile, be happy, to have a nice day?
The smiley is one of the rare icons that has drifted free from its origins to become a global phenomenon, immediately recognisable and instantly understood, as at home on a child’s homework as it is on corporate branding, as a digital expression of affirmation or, increasingly, as an ironic symbol of protest.
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As the comic artist Dave Gibbons explained in a 2012 interview with the BBC, the secret to the smiley’s ubiquity and enduring appeal – it’s been around since the early 1960s – lies in its flexibility and economy as a sign.
“It couldn’t be more simple and so, to that degree, it’s empty. It’s ready for meaning,” says Gibbons, the illustrator behind DC Comics’ award-winning Watchmen series, which famously used a blood-splattered smiley as a recurring symbol and as its first cover design.
“If you put it in a nursery setting … it fits in well. If you take it and put it on a riot policeman’s gas mask, then it becomes something completely different.”
The smiley’s ability to be both innocent and well-meaning and ambiguous and hip all at the same time can be seen in its very beginnings.
In 1964, The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger posed for a photograph wearing a yellow sweatshirt bearing the smiley logo of a New York radio station, while in the same year the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of America issued yellow smiley badges to its employees as part of an in-house motivational campaign.
Drawn in December 1963 by Harvey Ball, a commercial artist who was paid US$45 (Dh165) for the 10 minutes it took him to come up with the design, the yellow smiling face became a part of State Mutual’s corporate identity. However, neither Ball nor the insurance company registered the design.
And although State Mutual briefly produced tens of thousands of badges, it fell to two brothers from Philadelphia to popularise the yellow smiley face with the wider public for the first time.
Employed in the novelty industry, Bernard and Murray Spain created their own badges by taking the yellow smiley face logo and adding their own slogan – “Have a nice day” – in September 1970.
By 1972, the Spain brothers had produced an estimated 50 million pin badges and a smiley logo that was slightly more refined than Ball’s hand-drawn original, with even, oval eyes and a smoother, semicircular smile. The image became inextricably associated with the zeitgeist of early-1970s America.
Smiley faces started to appear on bumper stickers, stationery, posters, T-shirts and gifts, and even found their way onto the helmets and uniforms of American soldiers in Vietnam.
“The little brother of a stateside girlfriend sent me this [a smiley sticker], and having seen every imaginable (and a few unimaginable) permutations of ‘Bad-Ass’ helmet designs, I decided this was perversely sinister enough for my oblique sense of humour,” wrote Doug Kibbey, a US tank commander who served in Vietnam in 1972.
“Besides, I felt better about the laughter of others when they looked at me. This was a keeper and I still have it.”
In May 1972, Mad magazine got in on the act when it published a smiley-themed cover – with Alfred E Neuman’s inimitable face contained within a yellow disc. It was over in France in the same year, however, that journalist Franklin Loufrani became the first person to register the icon for commercial use.
Loufrani had started using a yellow smiley face to identify the rare examples of good news in his newspaper, France Soir, but when he registered the trademark, he called it and his new company “Smiley” with a capital “S” and started producing merchandise of his own.
The journalist’s son, Nicolas Loufrani, is now chief executive of the family business, which is based in London and has changed its name to Smiley World. In 2010, the company was ranked 98th in an international ranking of global licensees and recorded annual profits of $136 million (Dh500m).
Despite Loufrani’s ownership of the registered Smiley brand, the icon refuses to submit to conventional notions of ownership and now, thanks to digital media and the popularity of emoticons on mobile phones and websites such as Facebook, smiley faces are more ubiquitous than ever.
As Gibbons first suggested, however, it is when smileys are used as symbols of protest or as a form of critique that they now have most resonance, a situation that’s neatly summed up by the blood-splattered badge he drew for the cover of the first issue of Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
If Watchmen helped to establish the smiley as an ironic icon with a contemporary audience, it did so as part of a tradition that recalls the sign’s use in Vietnam and by bands such as Talking Heads, who featured a sinister-looking smiley on the Taxi Driver-inspired cover of their 1977 12″ single, Psycho Killer.
As The Guardian‘s Jon Savage wrote in 2009, the smiley became a recognised part of the history of pop culture in the early 2000s when the Janus-faced sign “became a shorthand for the high 1970s, referenced in that great touchstone of modern history, Forrest Gump, where Tom Hanks’s mud-spattered T-shirt provides the origin for the design”.
More recently, the smiley has been given additional critical bite by the United Kingdom-based graffiti artist Banksy.
Now famous for his distortion of widely recognised brands and icons, Banksy started painting riot police and soldiers with smiley faces in 2003, a juxtaposition that, drawing on the sign’s long history, carries a message that is simultaneously comic and profoundly political.
Despite the smiley’s capacity for anarchy and it’s potential to oscillate, as Savage wrote, “between Heaven and Hell”, its universal appeal as an icon of seductively uncomplicated joy remains undiminished.
When US singer and producer Pharrell Williams released Happy in 2013, the track also featured on the soundtrack of the American 3-D computer-animated comedy Despicable Me 2, a film that featured small, smiling yellow characters called minions, who appear to be yet another incarnation of Ball’s original smiling face.
Happily for Williams, the single was the most successful song of 2014, with 13.9 million units sold worldwide. Can you guess which icon featured on Williams’ T-shirt in the video?
Source: art & life