The smiley face is considered to be one of the most universal symbols. Defined by its unmissable features — a perfect circular form, vivid yellow color, oval eyes and an upturned semi-circular mouth — this simple image has grown to become a largely accepted representation of happiness. It has also influenced popular culture, appearing in Alan Moore’s 1986 superhero graphic novel Watchmen to being a focal point of designer Cynthia Lu’s contemporary label, Cactus Plant Flea Market.
While the origin of the design is contested, some would consider that it first gained its recognition from the 1963 American children’s TV program The Funny Company. The design featured a crude appearance on a kids’ club logo that was embellished on caps as well as the program’s end titles with the final message, “Keep Smiling.” Around the same time, Massachusetts-based commercial artist Harvey Ball featured its classic form in “a friendship campaign” for State Mutual Life Assurance in the hopes that he would design an image to boost the morale of its company employees.
It wasn’t until 1972 when Franklin Loufrani became the first person to trademark a smiley logo with a creative business project in mind. Set alongside the phrase “Take The Time To Smile,” it highlighted feel-good stories in a host of Europe’s leading newspapers. This was the first time the design was referred to as “Smiley,” and it led to the birth of “The Smiley Company”; whose mission was to spread good news, happiness and positivity. In the late 90’s his son Nicolas Loufrani created the first graphic emoticons that paved the way for the Emoji phenomenon.
For close to 50 years, The Smiley Company has managed and enhanced the icon, creating a lifestyle aesthetic that is today synonymous with creativity, fun and positivity by collaborating with some of the world’s leading tastemaker brands. It has also readapted its original good news message through Smiley News, bringing inspiring stories of people and communities working together to make the world a better place.
Over time, the smiley face has transitioned into becoming an ideogram for various subcultures, electronic music, personal freedoms and anti-capitalist attitudes. For instance, Talking Heads distorted the smiley for their iconic Psycho Killer 1977 single, while bands like Dead Kennedys’ put a more political spin on the graphic with their Uber Alles 1979 release. The smiley face’s ubiquity continues to be further woven into the fabric of pop culture history. In the realm of fashion, everyone from UNDERCOVER, Supreme and KAPITAL have all given their own interpretations of the smiley with nods to the more subversive roots of the symbol.
Watch the video above to learn more about the smiley face design and keep tabs on our Behind the HYPE series.