Iconic Origins: Have a Happy Day!

Happy Biggest 2 350X351

A simple curved line and two dots have long existed as a representation of a happy face, but at some point that classic black graphic on a yellow circle became an international symbol for positivity and goodwill. How does a symbol go from humble origins to worldwide recognition? Over the years, many have claimed rights to the mark, but documentation proves that one claim is the strongest.

In December 1963, Joy Young of the State Mutual Insurance Company in Worcester, Massachusetts asked commercial artist Harvey R. Ball to create a button (as seen below - image: The Smiley Company) to boost company morale as they transitioned through a company merger. Initially, the design was nothing more than the smile on the cheery yellow circle. Upon realizing the inverted version was less than the positive symbol he was looking for, Ball recognized the eyes were necessary and the dots were added, intentionally different and slightly askew.

Smilie Pin

Meanwhile in Europe, French journalist Franklin Loufrani became the first person to register the icon for commercial use in 1972, employing it in the newspaper France Soir to highlight good news items. Loufrani used this as a launch pad for his own t-shirt business using the symbol called the Smiley Company.Mass commercialization of the symbol began in the early 1970s when Philadelphia brothers Bernard and Murray Spain unapologetically sought out a positive symbol to exploit for their novelty item business. They recognized that in an era of such political turmoil and distress, the nation could use an injection of something more cheerful. Adopting the slogan used by telephone operators at the time, “Have a happy day!” they were able to copyright a version of the symbol and apply it to buttons, t-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, posters and countless other items. The icon took off.That enduring icon of positivity was created in 10 minutes and earned its creator a whopping $45. Neither creator nor client ever made an effort to copyright or trademark the icon, leaving the door open for others to step in.

The business was taken over by his son Nicolas Loufani in 1996, who established a style guide and became very successful licensing the icon globally. In 1997, Loufrani attempted to trademark the icon in the US and came up against a competing effort by Walmart who had been using the icon in their marketing. A 10 year legal battle was finally settled out of court in 2007. The terms were never disclosed, but Walmart had already begun to phase out its use of the symbol in 2006.

Henry Ball maintained until his death in April 2001, that he never regretted missing the opportunity to capitalize on his creation and was dismayed by its over-commercialization.

He would have preferred to keep the original intent of cheer and kindness without the financial reward. It’s an interesting contrast to the direction the symbol actually took and a subtle commentary on how trademark and copyright allow you to control the message.

The classic yellow circle with black smile became a symbol of a generation, but its legacy continues to this day. Two dots and a curved line are universally recognized as the “Happy Face” and can be seen everywhere from children’s stickers to retail signage, t-shirts and tater-tots. Overused and over-commercialized? Perhaps. But the message is always clear: Smile and Have a Happy Day.



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