The Smiley Face by Vivian Le
In 2004, Monika Minar was working at a law firm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, specializing in international intellectual property and trademarks when a smiley face came across her desk. The Kumon institute was being blocked from registering their very unique logo, which isn’t exactly smiley, and honestly looks a bit sad, but regardless, the ‘O’ as a face was contentious.
To understand the case, she had to dive into the origins of the smiley face, but this wasn’t the first or last time the smiley face has been at the center of lawsuits, involving companies like Joe Boxer and Walmart.
It’s such a simple icon that it’s hard to say for sure, but the smiley face as a pair of black eyes and an upturned mouth on a yellow background is generally traced back to an American graphic designer named Harvey Ross Bell. Half a century ago, he was hired to create a graphic that would reassure and cheer up bewildered workers at an insurance company after a series of arduous mergers and acquisitions.
The State Mutual Life Assurance Company slapped it on posters, buttons, and signs, hoping to encourage the staff to smile more. The specifics changed and the smiley evolved, but “according to Bill Wallace, Executive Director of the Worcester Historical Museum, the authentic Harvey Ball-designed smiley face could always be identified by its distinguishing features: the eyes are narrow ovals, one larger than the other, and the mouth is not a perfect arc but ‘almost like a Mona Lisa Mouth.’”
From there, various parties began to use and lay claim to variations on the design, including owners of Hallmark card shops in Philadelphia and a journalist in France named Franklin Loufrani. It was his family business that would spread the “Smiley” around the world, printing it on t-shirts but also licensing it to other companies, and making legal complaints when they saw competitors using similar designs. At the same time, though, Franklin’s son Nicolas concedes that the basics of the design are ancient, pointing out a cave painting in France with a similar stick-figure face that dates back thousands of years BC. One has to wonder how a family so intent on protecting a design can also so easily recognize its long history and universality.
Meanwhile, variations on the smiley have appeared on clothes and art. It’s appeared everywhere from the Dead Kennedys single art to the now-classic Watchmen comic series, later turned into a feature film. Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons explains the appeal, “It’s just a yellow field with three marks on it. It couldn’t be more simple. And so to that degree, it’s empty. It’s ready for meaning. If you put it in a nursery setting… It fits in well. If you take it and put it on a riot policeman’s gas mask, then it becomes something completely [different].”
The fact that the smiley face is such a ubiquitous symbol actually helped Monika Minar’s defense against Loufrani in his trademark opposition. Because the smiley face has been used in so many ways and in so many different contexts, the average person would never associate as the trademark of Loufrani or the Smiley Company.