The story behind the smiley face

Although it may feel like smileys have been around since forever, and it seems so natural to communicate with each other using emojis, it is hard to believe it is a relatively recent invention.. According to most sources the smiley face was designed in 1963 by Harvey Ball — a commercial artist in Massachusetts working for a local company called State Mutual Life Assurance. Ball’s intention was to raise morale among coworkers after a stressful period. After 10 minutes of work he came up with this:

Originally 100 smiley face badges were produced, but due to its popularity among employees another 10. 000 were ordered subsequently. Ball was paid $45 which was obviously not a bad deal for 10 minutes of work. But as it later turned out, it could have been much more. Ball and his company did not bother to copyright the smiley face. As a result, in 1970 Bernard and Murray Spain started placing it on goods’ packages in Philadelphia to boost sales. Since there was no copyright on the symbol, they made tiny modifications on it and added a text saying ‘have a nice day’. As of 1972 the Spain brothers sold tens of millions of smiley face related products including mugs, posters clothes,and bumpers stickers. After that the smiley face spreaded even more rapidly, especially in counterculture. After the mid-70s the smiley face has become a sort of remedy for the Vietnam syndrome and the socioeconomic crisis during that time.

Of course there were numerous references to the smiley face in popular culture mainly in the 1980s and 1990s. Surprisingly enough, in most of these references the smiley represented exactly the opposite of what it was originally meant to represent: lust of power, corporate greed, evil etc. Probably the most well-known appearance of the smiley face was in the 1992 movie, Forrest Gump.

Since the 1990s, the smiley face has evolved remarkably. In fact, smiley has changed so much we no longer call it a smiley. We called it emoticon and nowadays we call it emoji. Or rather emojis, because those faces express the whole spectrum of human emotions.

More importantly completely changes the way we communicate. Nothing indicates the revolutionary nature of emojis better than the fact that Oxford dictionary chose Apple’s laughing emoji for word of the year in 2015.


Yes, some refuse to call it evolution, and call it simplification or decline of communication. But whether we like it or not, there is very little we can do about it.


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