The Smiley Face, perhaps one of the best known secular icons in the contemporary world, was originally created by Harvey R. Ball in 1963. He designed the Smiley Face to inspirit workers of two recently merged insurance companies. State Mutual Life Assurance Companies of America paid him $45 US for his artwork and Ball never applied for a trademark or copyright. Though more than 50 million Smiley Face buttons were sold in 1971, not to mention the millions of T-shirts and patches carrying Smiley Face, Ball didn’t seek financial gain from his seminal work.
The Smiley Face has been seen millions, perhaps trillions, of times, and each time someone sees the Smiley Face that person must at least be subtly affected. The human brain is extremely adept at recognizing faces, human faces in particular, and smiling is a characteristically human reaction. The Smiley Face more than represents someone smiling; it is smiling. Seeing the Smiley Face can provoke self-reflection or irate dismissal, as any face might. But the point is that the Smiley Face is smiling, unthinkingly beaming happiness at whomever might see it.
In the last summer of the twentieth century, I borrowed a quarter to buy that plastic ball plastered with a copy of the Smiley Face. I thought something might be inside, but the plastic sphere’s two halves were inseparable. I wanted the Smiley Face ball because seeing it reminded me I was still recovering from a broken heart and I believed that one of those hundreds of eternally smiling yellow balls was mine, the totemic guarantee of future happiness. Happiness is indivisible and there is nothing inside. For me, this object—purchased from a vending machine in a supermarket in Atlanta, Georgia—is both sign and premonition.
After a short illness, Harvey R. Ball died on Thursday, 12 April 2001. He was 79.