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10 Things About Harvey Ball and His Famous Smiley Face

Flickr / Creative Commons / Trevor Hunter

10 Things About Harvey Ball and His Famous Smiley Face

Harvey BallHarvey Ball might not be a household name, but he created one of the most recognizable icons in the world. Ten years after his death, we bring you 10 things you might not know about the creator of the Smiley Face.

1. Harvey Ball was born on July 10, 1921 in Worcester, Massachusetts. After graduating from Worcester South High School he became apprentice to a local sign painter before eventually studying fine arts at the Worcester Art Museum School.

2. During World War II, Ball served in Asia and the Pacific and was awarded the Bronze Star for Heroism during the Battle of Okinawa (he would go on to serve in the National Guard for much of his life, reaching the rank of colonel before retiring in 1979). After the war ended, Ball went to work for an advertising firm in Worcester. In 1959, he started his own company, Harvey Ball Advertising.

3. In 1963, the State Mutual Life Insurance Company of Worcester, Massachusetts bought the Guarantee Mutual Insurance Company of Ohio and the merger resulted in low employee morale. Promotions director Joy Young was assigned with creating a visual icon to accompany a ‘friendship campaign’ the company hoped would improve the situation.

4. She hired Ball to sketch something to be used on buttons, and Ball came up with a smiley face on a bright yellow background. The original design consisted only of a grinning mouth but Ball, realizing the button could easily be inverted to send the wrong (i.e. “frowny”) message, decided to add eyeballs. The left eye was deliberately created slightly smaller than the right in order to humanize the drawing through its imperfection. The design took him less than 10 minutes to complete. He was paid $45 for his work. Neither Ball nor the insurance company bothered to copyright the creation. In an interview with the Telegram & Gazette, Harvey’s son Charles Ball said his father never regretted the missed revenue opportunity. “He was not a money-driven guy,” said Charles.

5. The original button had only a 7/8-inch radius. State Mutual Life Insurance first produced only 100 buttons for employees, but soon clients began requesting them and the company started ordering the buttons in batches of 10,000. Later that year, a syndicated TV show called “The Funny Company” would feature a TV character with a Smiley Face logo pinned on its hat, bringing it further exposure.

6. In the early 1970s, brothers Bernard and Murray Spain added the tagline “Have a happy day” (later amended to “Have a nice day”) and copyrighted the logo/slogan combination. The Smiley Face button then became a national fad lasting nearly two years before peaking in 1972. By that time, the Spain brothers had sold an estimated 50 million Smiley Face buttons – not to mention Smiley Face posters, coffee mugs, T-shirts, etc.

7. Beginning in 1996, retail behemoth Walmart started using the Smiley Face in stores and later in TV ads. They then tried to claim ownership of the design. Lawyers would unsmilingly litigate the case for 10 years before a judge ruled against Walmart in 2006 (exhorting them, one hopes, to “have a nice day” just before lowering his gavel).

8. “Smiley has become so commercialized that its original message of spreading good will and good cheer has all but disappeared,” Harvey Ball said in 1999, announcing the formation of the World Smile Corporation. “I needed to do something to change that.” The World Smile Corporation was created to promote “World Smile Day,” held every year on the first Friday in October. The event helps raise money for the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation, a charitable trust that supports various children’s causes. Its slogan is “Do an act of kindness – help one person smile!”

9. In 1993, David Stern, a former ad man turned Seattle mayoral candidate, claimed in campaign ads to have invented the Smiley Face for a local savings and loan company in 1967. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer called his bluff, and he lost the election.

10. Harvey Ball died on April 12, 2001 of liver failure at the age of 79. Nearly 50 years after commissioning its creation, the company now known as Worcester Mutual Fire Insurance still uses his Smiley Face in its promo materials.