Ubiquitous Icons: Peace, Power, and Happiness

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There are symbols all around us that we take for granted, like the lightning strike icon to indicate that something is high voltage or a little campfire to indicate that something is flammable. Those icons, they might have some fascinating origin story, but there’s symbolism is pretty obvious, but other abstract icons are not so straight forward.

Roman Mars:
Like why does one vertical line and two angled lines inside of the circle indicate peace? Where does the smiley face come from or the power button? Today we send out the 99pi team to dig into the backstory behind some of those images you see every day. You might know what they mean, but you don’t know why they mean what they mean. We’re calling this episode ubiquitous icons.

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Roman Mars:
So Emmett is here to bring us the story of the peace symbol.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Here I am.

Roman Mars:
We’re not talking about the peace symbol like two fingers up when someone takes a picture.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right? No.

Roman Mars:
The drawing of a circle with a little stick.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. The one that looks kind of like the Mercedes Benz logo.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That you see everywhere.

Roman Mars:
I mean it’s kind of hard to think of a more ubiquitous icon than the peace symbol.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, right. It’s truly, truly everywhere. I think what interested me about it was that despite its sort of total ubiquity, it has a very, very specific origin story.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s cool. Okay. So hit me with it.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So the symbol goes back to the 1950s and a British organization called the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War.

Roman Mars:
That’s a good name that does what it says on the tin.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty self-explanatory. They were an anti-nuclear group. It was the 1950s. It was sort of the early days of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation and Britain itself was developing a hydrogen bomb. And there was this growing activist sentiment that they didn’t want the country to go down that path. So in 1958, they started organizing this really big march from London to a weapons facility in a town called Aldermaston, which was about 50 miles away.

Roman Mars:
Oh. So this is a long march. A multi-day march.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. One of the people who helped organize that march was a man named Gerald Holtom and Holtom was an artist and a designer. He trained at the Royal College of Art and it was his job to design all the posters and the banners and whatnot for the march. He specifically wanted to design a symbol, something that could convey the goals of these marchers, convey this idea of anti-nuclear proliferation. He wanted it to be simple, something that could be reproduced on a lot of signs.

Roman Mars:
I take it that he’s the one who came up with the peace on as we know it.

Emmett FitzGerald:
You got it.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. So where does this specific design actually come from? What is it supposed to represent?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Well, to answer that, I think we need to take a small diversion. So are you familiar with semaphores?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I mean it’s the communication where you have two flags in your hands and you write different positions with your arms and it symbolizes different letters.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Exactly. Exactly. So semaphores actually… The concept goes back to the late 18th century in France. And this man named Claude Chappe invented basically what it was like a network of towers. On top of these towers, they had these sort of wooden structures that could be manipulated to create different positions that would symbolize certain things. So one tower would pass the message onto the next tower, which would pass the message on to the next tower. There were operators in these towers that manipulate the things. It was this kind of amazing way in a pre-digital age to communicate messages over really large businesses.

Roman Mars:
It’s like in ‘The Return of the King’, the Lord of the Rings movie, where they light the bonfires across-

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, exactly.

Roman Mars:
… the whole mountain range. Oh, that’s so cool.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Exactly. I love that scene.

Clip from LOTR:
“The beacon! The beacon of Amon Dîn is lit.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
It’s very inspiring.

Roman Mars:
It’s very inspiring. The king is coming.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. So it was about as fast as communication could happen in this time. They could supposedly send a message 100 miles in under 10 minutes. So that concept was basically adapted into the flag language that you know by… I think it was British naval officers who sort of basically made a handheld version using flags.

Roman Mars:
So cool.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So you could create these symbols. An officer on one ship can communicate to an officer on another ship or communicate to an officer on shore and hold the flags in a certain position that meant a certain letter and might have it in another meaning. This became an effective means of communication. It’s not terribly well used at this point anymore, for obvious reasons. It’s fairly redundant. You still do see it though sometimes, in researching this, I discovered that the Ocean City Beach Patrol in Maryland, a sort of super lifeguard group, uses it to communicate down the beach.

Roman Mars:
That’s awesome.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So, a child is missing, they’ll hold up the flags and one to the next and then everyone on the beach knows.

Roman Mars:
That’s so good. Hats off to them. Yeah. So what is semaphore has to do with the peace symbol then?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Well, Gerald Holtom used the Semaphore alphabet, the flag alphabet, as basically his inspiration for his design. So take a look at this image.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So it’s a stick figure human, and they have their arms kind of down at 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock and two flags kind of pointing down, but not directly down. That’s one symbol. And then another one is a person with one arm up, the flag pointing up and one arm pointing down. So at 12 and 6.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. Yeah. So basically the peace sign that we’re all familiar with is essentially two Semaphore letters…

Roman Mars:
Oh. Okay.

Emmett FitzGerald:
… interlocking, so inside the circle. So you’ve got-

Roman Mars:
The one where the arms are down.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s N.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Then the upright?

Emmett FitzGerald:
It’s D.

Roman Mars:
So N and D. so what does N and D stand for?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Nuclear disarmament.

Roman Mars:
Right! That’s so good.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. It’s pretty cool. It’s such an abstract object. I never knew there was a literal meaning encoded in it.

Roman Mars:
Totally. I mean, I always interpreted it as a jet fighter plane. I don’t know. That shape always did. And I thought it was sort of appropriated ironically to mean peace. Not specifically to nuclear disarmament or anything. I just thought it was… I grew up in a more ironic age and so having ironic symbols struck me as totally normal. But the fact that it just stands for N and D together is really cool. It’s what works as that with a direct explanation. But it also works if you don’t know that, which clearly most people don’t.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. It’s not like this is… I mean, I don’t think it’s common knowledge. It’s interesting, Holtom himself had sort of multiple interpretations. In addition to the N and the D, he said that it’s sort of to him represented a figure with their arms outstretched and kind of a despairing position almost like before a firing squad. He mentioned a painting with a band before firing squad. It was a very sad, despairing image even.

Roman Mars:
So he designed specifically for this March and obviously they accepted the design.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. Right. The march was very successful and it actually became an annual event.

Archive Tape:
“Easter time is traditionally the time for the big ban-the-bomb rally at Aldermaston. It was bigger than ever this year and this was the scene before they set out on the 50 mile march to London. A noteworthy event, whether you happen to agree with their views are not.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
Tens of thousands of British people took part in these marches. I learned, fun fact, that a young Rod Stewart participated.

Roman Mars:
Good for him.

Emmett FitzGerald:
They became embedded within culture. There’s a very famous Scottish folk singer, Matt McGinn, who wrote a song about them called ‘On The Road from Aldermaston’. (song plays)

Roman Mars:
That’s a good bari he has in his voice. That’s really nice.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, isn’t it great? But yeah, as the Aldermaston marches became this annual event, they started to be organized by this larger umbrella organization called the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which is an organization that still exists to this day in the UK and they actually have Holtom’s peace symbol as their official logo.

Roman Mars:
Oh wow. So it’s not just the symbol that people obviously use everywhere, but it is really an official logo for one individual organization. That’s really kind of something. So how did it go from being a symbol used in this march and a specific logo for a certain organization to being this icon that is just everywhere today.

Emmett FitzGerald:
It’s obviously not easy to answer that. How does anything spread and become a meme. It’s not an easy thing to explain.

Roman Mars:
For sure.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But one little interesting tidbit that I came across as I was researching was that the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin actually spoke at that first Aldermaston march.

Roman Mars:
So the queer civil rights leader…

Emmett FitzGerald:
Exactly. Very often under-appreciated figure in the American civil rights movement. Close advisor to Dr. King, important organizer of the march on Washington and he was there. He was at that first march. And then you see the peace symbol starts showing up in civil rights marches as early as 1960 and so there is some speculation that it might’ve actually been Rustin himself who brought this logo from these British marches to civil rights marches in the US. It obviously became often featured in civil rights marches and then obviously really snowballed. It became a huge symbol in the anti-war movement in the United States with Vietnam. Everyone sort of took on the peace symbol as their own.

Roman Mars:
I mean it became just the symbol of counter culturalism, but I don’t know if it’s really that as much anymore. It got grabbed onto by commercial interests to such an extent that I don’t know if it’s as serious a symbol as it was.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, it’s interesting. It was almost so ubiquitous that it lost its edge a little bit. I mean, I certainly don’t think of it as a counter-cultural symbol necessarily. It’s sort of just something… Who doesn’t support peace, who doesn’t support the peace symbol. It’s funny. I remember, I think I was in first or second grade, there’s a picture of me from school picture day, behind the lasers background and I’m wearing this goofy little Safari vest and this massive peace sign necklace. Everyone loves peace signs.

Roman Mars:
You got massive like Flavor Flav-

Emmett FitzGerald:
I mean, no, not like Flavor Flav. I don’t know, like half dollar size.

Roman Mars:
Okay. That’s pretty good. I am certain I had a peace sign necklace when I was in junior high or high school. Yeah, totally. It was just everywhere. Maybe even more so then than now, but crazy.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Certainly, see a lot of them around our beloved East Bay.

Roman Mars:
For sure.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Do you have any thoughts as someone who thinks about design and logos on why this was successful? What’s good about it as a logo, as a piece of design?

Roman Mars:
I mean I think it’s really easy to draw. It’s really striking. It is enough of an abstract image that you can pour meaning into and it seemed to retain that meaning even though it went beyond nuclear disarmament and went to peace in general. In lots of ways the orientation, it doesn’t have to be perfectly upright for it to work in fact like a little bit tilted it looks good in either way.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, it’s interesting on that. I talked to this historian of the peace symbol, his name is Ken Kolsbun and he wrote a great book detailing all this history. He said that Gerard Holtom actually himself came to think that it should be flipped completely upside down so that the two lines coming off of the center line would be facing upward at 45 degrees.

Roman Mars:
Forming a Y.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Forming a Y and I think part of his reasoning was that it would look almost like a tree and then the sort of a more hopeful symbol there. But the other thing which I think is pretty interesting was that then, it would in Semaphore letters a U.

Roman Mars:
Not an N.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Not an N, which he saw as universal disarmament instead of nuclear disarmament, which is pretty cool when you think… I mean, not that this hasn’t actually happened, most people do keep it pointed down.

Roman Mars:
Pointed down. Yeah.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But I think that in his mind it was bigger than just Britain not developing nuclear weapons. It was about world peace, which is exactly kind of what it has come to symbolize.

Roman Mars:
So whether or not you flip it or not, it really is that intent still there.

Emmett FitzGerald:
I think so, yeah.

Roman Mars:
Which is pretty great. It means that he created a symbol that stood the test of time, whether you flip it or not.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. I mean, once you create something and it gets sucked into culture, to the degree that the peace symbol did, you don’t exactly get to-

Roman Mars:
Flip…

Emmett FitzGerald:
You don’t get to flip it on its head five years later. It was gone.

Roman Mars:
It’s everyone else’s now. It belongs to the world.

Emmett FitzGerald:
It belongs to the world. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s so cool. All right. Thanks.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Thank you.

Roman Mars:
Special thanks to Ken Kolsbun who spoke with Emmett about the peace symbol. He wrote a great book. It’s called ‘Peace: The Biography of a Symbol’. Which you can find a link to on our website.

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Roman Mars:
So I’m in the studio with Vivian Le and what is your ubiquitous icon you’re going to tell us about today?

Vivian Le:
So this story actually came from one of our listeners named Monika Minar, who is awesome, by the way. We have some really cool listeners.

Roman Mars:
Totally.

Vivian Le:
She lives in Vancouver now, but back in 2004, she was working for a law firm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in intellectual property under trademarks.

Monika Minar:
So my job was basically to look at either create trademark applications or write statements to the registrar.

Vivian Le:
And I promise that this story is going to get more interesting.

Roman Mars:
She wrote trademark applications.

Vivian Le:
Yes.

Roman Mars:
Please tell me more.

Vivian Le:
Oh man. But yeah. Okay.

Roman Mars:
No, I believe you.

Vivian Le:
It will get more interesting. I promise.

Roman Mars:
This is the cornerstone of 99% Invisible.

Vivian Le:
It’s a classic 99pi episode. We’re going to talk about IP and it’s going to be great.

Roman Mars:
It’s going to be great. I have no doubt in my mind. So keep going.

Vivian Le:
So I just feel we have to clarify a couple of things right up top. One of them is what a trademark actually is.

Monika Minar:
A trademark is basically words, or sounds, letters, or a design or a combination of all or a few of them to distinguish one’s goods or services from all others in the marketplace.

Vivian Le:
So if you’re a company, you could register a trademark or like a logo with the trademark office and that logo is supposed to be representative of your goods and service. So as this mark becomes associated with your product, it becomes tied to the reputation of your brand.

Roman Mars:
Got it. Okay. Got you so far.

Vivian Le:
Okay. So if someone wants to register a trademark, they have to submit it for review. But if there’s an existing trademark already and the owner thinks that your trademark is too similar to theirs, they can oppose it. For example, if you take the 99pi logo, which is the black grid with the yellow square. That logo is associated with your work. Right? So imagine a really, really bad podcast comes out.

Roman Mars:
It’s hard to imagine a bad podcast but go ahead.

Vivian Le:
Okay. So imagine there’s a terrible chatty podcast and their logo is very similar, like it’s a black grid with a slightly different yellow, whatever. They might see that and think it’s 99pi’s work and then your reputation would be negatively affected by their logo.

Roman Mars:
Totally. That’s the whole reason why you have trademark protection. Confusing the consumer is the heart of trademark protection.

Vivian Le:
Yes, exactly. You got it. So Monika basically wrote to us, because there’s this one case in particular that she worked on back in 2004 and it’s been stuck in her head for the last 15 years. So I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Kumon Institute.

Roman Mars:
No.

Vivian Le:
But it’s basically an education center franchise. A bunch of tutoring schools basically. So they were trying to register a trademark logo, but they were being opposed by another company.

Monika Minar:
We got a statement of opposition from another company regarding one of our registrations for a trademark for the Kumon Institute. They sent a opposition to say that Kumon’s logo is too similar to their already registered trademark, which is the smiley face.

Roman Mars:
As in like the classic smiley face – big yellow circle, two oval eyes and the semi-circle mouth pointing upwards.

Vivian Le:
Yes. Exactly. If you think about a smiley face that is the company that was opposing this education center.

Roman Mars:
I mean this certainly qualifies as a ubiquitous icon, but I totally didn’t think that it could be owned by one company such that they would have a trademark dispute and even designed by anyone. It just seems like a thing that exists.

Vivian Le:
It’s just there. It’s everywhere. It’s not everything.

Roman Mars:
Exactly.

Vivian Le:
So I should actually show you what the Kumon logo looks like. So there’s a photo there.

Roman Mars:
Oh, okay. So it says Kumon and the O is a face. It’s not smiling. It’s just a very simple circle in a kind of straight line like pensive. It looks like the head of a ’90s old cartoon head. It’s not really smiling.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, yeah. To me, it kind of looks more like the Zoloft cartoon than an actual smiley face.

Roman Mars:
Which is like you can’t see the sun anymore because of depression.

Vivian Le:
Exactly.

Roman Mars:
It has a little bit of that vibe. It also just has a little bit of like… It’s cool looking, actually. It’s a good logo.

Vivian Le:
It is. It’s a good logo. I like it. But the Kumon Institute was being opposed by the Smiley Company, which was founded by a journalist named Franklin Loufrani and now it’s run by his son, Nicolas Loufrani. So they registered the smiley face trademark in 1971 so they basically licensed the rights for commercial purposes to like Levi’s or candy companies or basically anybody that wants to use the design. But do you want to know what the weirdest thing that I learned while researching this story?

Roman Mars:
Definitely.

Vivian Le:
So if you go to Nicholas Loufrani’s LinkedIn page, his official title is beloved leader at the Smiley Company.

Roman Mars:
Oh, beloved leader. Not a good look.

Vivian Le:
A little North Korean-y.

Roman Mars:
Exactly. Oh goodness. I mean, he could be a delightful fellow and this could be just kind of having fun or whatever, but that is definitely a dictatorial rule. That’s what that screams to me personally. But whatever he enjoys, go with God.

Vivian Le:
So knowing that, this actually wasn’t the first time that Loufrani tried to block another trademark. He also tried to block a Joe Boxer, which I’m not sure if you’re familiar with-

Roman Mars:
Yeah, totally.

Vivian Le:
…the underwear company and their logo is basically a smiley face with a tongue sticking out. They were also involved in a year’s long battle with Walmart because Walmart uses the smiley face in their rollback campaigns.

Roman Mars:
Oh totally. Yeah, floats around and changes the prices on the Walmart.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, that guy disappeared for a while because of this legal battle with Loufrani.

Roman Mars:
So was the smiley face originally created by Loufrani or was he just the first person that trademark it?

Vivian Le:
You see that is the question because even though Loufrani was the first to register the mark, he’s definitely not the first person to claim to have created it. There’s accounts that go back to the 1600s basically of some variation of a smiling face symbol being used, but the most widely accepted theory of who invented that classic yellow smiley face as we know it today was a man named Harvey Ross Ball in 1963.

Monika Minar:
He was hired by an insurance company to improve morale. So he was hired to create some kind of a design that they can apply on buttons and other, maybe, materials.

Vivian Le:
So Ball was a freelance artist based in Worcester-

Roman Mars:
That’s right.

Vivian Le:
Worcester, Massachusetts. Chowder, socks (in New England accent). And around this time State Mutual Life Insurance merged with one of their competitors. And every time that you have a merger, I guess, there’s a lot of layoffs and sadness.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, for sure.

Vivian Le:
So what State Mutual did was they hired Ball to come up with this logo for a friendship campaign that they were launching. So they just slapped it on buttons and posters and handed that out to staff and clients and that sort of thing. Honestly, not a ton of thought went into the design, because Ball said that he mocked up the design about like 10 minutes and he was paid $45 for it. But the campaign started growing and the buttons started catching on and State Mutual started selling actually, thousands of these smiley face buttons. But neither State Mutual or Ball trademark the logo.

Roman Mars:
They made a mistake there.

Vivian Le:
I know. So have you ever heard of the smiley face being referred to as ‘have a nice day’?

Roman Mars:
It sounds vaguely familiar, but no. I would always call it a smiley face.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, it’s kind of a slogan that went with the smiling face. So some people might recognize it as have a nice day rather than the smiley face.

Roman Mars:
Okay. That makes sense.

Vivian Le:
So the have a nice day smiley face is essentially the same design as Ball’s smiley face, but instead it’s credited to these two brothers named Bernard and Murray Spain. So in 1970 they basically just took Ball’s design and sold it to Hallmark with the phrase, ‘have a nice day’. This is kind of the point where the smiley face shot into that nebulous pop culture stratosphere. Because it ends up on mugs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, earrings, and it becomes sort of this embodiment of merchandising and mass-production. And because the smiley face was everywhere and on everything, the meaning behind the smiley face was just easily corrupted. So in 1972, it was featured satirically on the cover of Mad Magazine. There’s a composite image of Alfred E. Newman’s face on a yellow smiley face. But do you know the song ‘California Über Alles’ by the Dead Kennedys?

Roman Mars:
Wha..? Yes. I know the song ‘California Über Alles’ by the Dead Kennedys.

Vivian Le:
Knowing a little bit about your music tastes… (laughs)

Roman Mars:
You’ve never come closer to being fired than you are right now.

Vivian Le:
Sorry, I doubted you.

Roman Mars:
Do you want me to sing all six verses or do you want me to just sing the first one?

Vivian Le:
I kind of want to see how far you go. Let’s prove it. Prove it. Prove it.

Roman Mars:
“I am Governor Jerry Brown.
My aura smiles and never frowns.
Soon I will be president.”

Yes. I know the song ‘California Über Alles’.

Vivian Le:
Okay. So is this like 1979-ish?

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Vivian Le:
So the song is about this hippy fascist state run by Jerry Brown.

Roman Mars:
Jerry Brown. Right.

Vivian Le:
The single art, it kind of looks Jerry Brown is the dictator and it’s like a Nuremberg style rally. And instead behind is banners-

Roman Mars:
Swastika, smiley faces.

Vivian Le:
Smiley faces. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, it’s kind of entering this corruption phase of a smiley face.

Roman Mars:
Where there’s a sinister quality.

Vivian Le:
Exactly. Yeah. And then the smiley face is reappropriated again by Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’. Are you familiar with them?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, totally. It was clearly already creepy then and then he adds that splash of blood, which becomes the symbol for ‘Watchmen’. And ‘the Comedian’, who’s that’s his symbol, is a deeply flawed and awful character. The smiley face is this kind of ironic, but also almost not… I don’t even know. It’s already pre-corrupted to an extent that I don’t even know how much ‘the Comedian’ as a character is a subverting it. Almost, I don’t know.

Vivian Le:
You don’t have a nice day when you see the Watchmen smiley face.

Roman Mars:
You do not and also just the violence of that. It’s a graphic novel that kind of makes you feel bad. It’s very jarring as a piece of art, in a good way.

Vivian Le:
Yeah. When you read Watchmen, that smiley face becomes associated with that discomfort.

Roman Mars:
Totally.

Vivian Le:
Yeah. But once you start getting into the ’80s the smiley face kind of just strays further and further away from God because acid house music and rave start taking over the UK. I’m not sure how much time you’ve spent at raves.

Roman Mars:
No, not very much.

Vivian Le:
There tends to be a lot of drug use happening there.

Roman Mars:
Oh, my God. Scandalous.

Vivian Le:
I mean I just wanted to caution you that at raves, sometimes there’s drugs. At a lot of these raves, the pills would be printed with the smiley face design on them. So, in the ’80s and in the ’90s in the United States, the smiley face was kind of just associated with this rape culture and illicit drug culture. But yeah. It’s far from where it started.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. It just kind of takes on… It’s like tofu. It just takes on the flavor of whatever’s around at this point. Because that’s just the way it is.

Vivian Le:
It’s icon tofu. That’s great. But yeah, so Dave Gibbons, who was the illustrator-

Roman Mars:
Illustrator for Watchmen.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, he illustrated Watchmen. He actually said this of the smiley face, which I really like. He says, “It’s just a yellow field with three marks on it. It couldn’t be more simple. So to that degree, it’s empty and 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 policemen’s gas mask, then it becomes something completely different.” This is kind of one of the arguments that Monica used against Loufrani and the Smiley Company when they tried to oppose the Kumon logo.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s really interesting. How did she do that?

Vivian Le:
So if you remember, a trademark is supposed to be a distinct representation of a product or a company, right?

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Vivian Le:
But the smiley face is so ubiquitous and has been used in so many different competing ways that as a trademark for the Smiley Company, it doesn’t really hold any association to the Smiley Company or to Loufrani himself.

Monika Minar:
That is actually a problem for Loufrani, because it is now of such widespread use. It is most probable that most people have never even heard of the name being associated with the smiley face.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I mean I think probably most people attribute the smiley face logo to Forrest Gump than Loufrani or anything else related to him at all.

Vivian Le:
Before I shared the story I would have said Forrest Gump made the smiley face.

Roman Mars:
So did she win?

Vivian Le:
She did. Yeah, and that is the current logo for Kumon. They couldn’t stop them.

Roman Mars:
Oh, well cool. There you go. Well, that’s awesome. Well, thanks Monika for writing in. If you have an interesting job, you’ve done something cool…

Vivian Le:
Yeah. Even if it’s not interesting, but there’s a cool story behind it.

Roman Mars:
That’s right. Yeah. Boring job but there’s an interesting story behind it then-

Vivian Le:
Hit us up.

Roman Mars:
… this is your home.

Vivian Le:
This is your home.

Roman Mars:
Thanks, Vivian.

Roman Mars:
Thank you.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
So I’m in the studio with Kurt Kohlstedt and you have an icon that you want to talk about?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh, yes. Yeah, I do.

Roman Mars:
Okay. What is it?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, it’s typically called the power icon, but it’s also officially known as the standby symbol.

Roman Mars:
Oh, okay. This is what you would see on a computer, for example?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh yeah. If you spent any time at all around computers, you’ve seen power buttons like this.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It’s very common and it’s very specific. It’s basically just a circle with a gap at the top and then there’s this vertical line that runs up through the center of the circle and through that gap.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. This is pretty much what you see on every computer. You press the button to start the computer or to put it to sleep or turn it off or that sort of thing. Yeah.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, and it looks sort of abstract. It doesn’t look like anything in particular.

Roman Mars:
But it’s also one of those ubiquitous icons that… Like the ones we’ve been talking about, that it seems to make sense as to what it is, even though I’ve never really thought about how abstract it is or how literal it is at all.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, yeah. You learn it from context. You see it over and over again and you’re like, yeah that’s a power button.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
But it’s actually based on binary notation. So essentially binary is about on states and off states, which are usually represented by ones and zeros. And those of course look a lot like vertical lines and circles.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So the circle is the zero that indicates off. And then the line part, the vertical line is the one and indicates on. But why is the line breaking up the circle like it is on a power button?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, so that’s why this is called the standby symbol. Because it’s not a complete power on, off symbol and it’s used mostly to put devices to sleep and to wake them back up again.

Roman Mars:
Huh.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So it doesn’t actually physically cut off power going to a device. It’s not pulling the plug or removing the battery or something.

Roman Mars:
But I also feel like I’ve seen the general use of the circle and a line on other types of power switches and stuff like that. Is that common in itself?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, you definitely have. There’s a bunch of power-related symbols that all use lines and circles. So sometimes you’ll see a switch, for example, with a line on one side and a circle on the other.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And that’s a hard on/off switch.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
You can find similar buttons that where the circle completely encloses the line. So that way there’s no ambiguity, you know this is going to turn something completely on or completely off.

Roman Mars:
So once you establish this connection between the binary zero and one, all these other power buttons pretty much make sense. They have a little bit of variation, but they pretty much are that. But there’s also, I mean I remember when I was a kid, boomboxes had a switcher, more like a light switch where it would say on and off. Or on a stereo, it would be a push button, but it would say power. I think that’s sort of gone away over time or is less over time.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, it was a really common thing for a long time to use English language labels, which people could read. But in the mid-1900s, the late 1900s as electronics started to get made around the world and then shipped around the world, languages became sort of a barrier. Right? You needed something more universal. Also, if you think about it, words take up a lot of space compared to symbols.

Roman Mars:
Right. Right.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So this is where the IEC comes in and that’s the nonprofit International Electrotechnical Commission. And in the 1970s they published this document called ‘Graphical Symbols for Use on Equipment’.

Roman Mars:
You have it with you? Okay. Oh this is cool.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And this is just a sampling of what this is. I just printed out a couple of pages.

Roman Mars:
Right. You see a gas tank, a symbol for a hood on a car and a trunk opening. Seatbelt sign, oil sign, battery sign. These are all… You recognize these all on the dashboard of a car. You can tell a bunch of nerds put this together, because they all fit. They all work at this size, you know what I mean?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
They’re all very uniform in size and they convey information in that size. A lot of information. But they are really kind of different too. You know?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And the IEC came up with some of these, but a lot of them they just adopted or adapted from what was already being widely used. And then they just folded them into this huge set of recommended standards.

Roman Mars:
They look kind of like tech hieroglyphics. They convey a lot of information. If you put them all together, it almost tells a little story. Especially, I’m not the best at maintaining my car, so various lights are on in my car at all times. So I’m familiar with a lot of these symbols.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. Yeah. And the idea is that they are supposed to be familiar and they’re supposed to work across languages and at different scales, be as intuitive and universal as possible. So if you traveled to another country and drive a car and you see a light come on, hopefully you’ll also know what’s wrong in that other country.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And as part of making them universal and understandable, the IEC goes out of its way to create these visually similar sets or families of symbols. And so that way, once you understand one of them, you can start to make guesses about what other symbols would look like.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, so I’m flipping through and I recognize a lot of these symbols, but the power icon one that we started talking about, that one, you see variations of that more than you see any of these. It’s on every type of gadget and every type of computer or whatever.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, it’s super widespread now. And there’s this great YouTube video about it on a channel called “LGR”.

YouTube Clip:
“The power symbol. I imagine most never give it much thought.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
The narrator shows a bunch of reuses and remixes and things like company logos, tee shirts, even tattoos for those who are really serious about it.

YouTube Clip:
“Of all the symbols defined in IEC 60417, the one for power is arguably the one to have best achieved its goal of ubiquity around the world, especially among the tech-loving community.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So the symbol really has become recognizable and ubiquitous, which from the perspective of the IEC is great. That means it’s working as intended.

Roman Mars:
Can people find the IEC manual online?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh yeah. There’ll be links on the website to the IEC manual. I’ll embed this video that I was just talking about. You can go wild and play guessing games trying to figure out what the different symbols mean.

Roman Mars:
Cool. All right. Thanks, Kurt.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Kurt Kohlstedt and Chris Berube. Music by Sean Real. Katie Mingle is our senior producer. The rest of the team is Delaney Hall, Joe Rosenberg, Sharif Youssef, Avery Trufelman, Sophia Klatkzer and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on radio row in beautiful, downtown Oakland, California. 99% Invisible is a member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative shows in all of podcasting. Find them all and Radiotopia.fm. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me at Roman Mars and the show at 99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. But if you want us to explore the origin of other ubiquitous icons, leave a comment @99pi.org.

Credits

Production

This episode was produced by Kurt Kholstedt, Emmett FitzGerald, and Vivian Le and edited by Chris Berube.

Special thanks to Monika Minar and Ken Kolsbun author of Peace: Biography of a Symbol

  1. My 9th grade English teacher–a self-proclaimed flower child of the ’60s–had told us that the peace symbol is the footprint of a dove (in a circle). Although that is apparently apocryphal, I do like that explanation. (Of course, that could be a footprint of any number of bird species…)

  2. Michael Bentley

    There’s actually another Mad Magazine connection in this episode. The Vietnam-era Al Jaffee strip Hawks & Doves centered on Private Doves finding different ways to display a peace symbol, much to the annoyance of Major Hawks.

    And a bit more color on Bayard Rustin: Rustin was a native of West Chester, Pennsylvania. In 2006, he was finally made the namesake of a new high school in the district. Rumor is that he was in the running for naming an earlier high school in the district but it was blocked due to him being gay. Thus, the district ended up with the redundantly named “West Chester East High School.”

  3. Pete Harper

    Errr since when has this been the Peace Symbol? It’s the CND badge and that’s it! Well it was growing up in 1970’s Britain, punk, Anti Nazi League and CND. Am I the only person who has only ever associated the icon with CND? Funny since the next item featured the DK s – didn’t they have a logo based on their initials? Love the podcast, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables :)

  4. Jackson O'Brien

    Dear fellow beautiful nerds

    I love this episode and I’m taking Roman’s request to submit a ubiquitous icon for further diving.

    I love the Biohazard symbol. I love that it looks like absolutely nothing but a bunch of circles and squiggly lines but also instantly conveys “this will fuck your shit up stay away”. I’d love to know how it was designed.

  5. When I heard “semaphore” in the first segment my first association was how the lifeguards communicated with each other at Ocean City in the late 1960s and 1970s when we were there for family vacations.

    I always thought that’s what all lifeguards did but the show implied it was a local thing.

    Wonder if there is a name or episode for that idea, things you know local that you think are global and they are not. Growing up in Baltimore I thought all bowling was duckpins, but that too was regional. Likewise, from FM radio then I was sure Little Feat was a national band but turns out they were big in Baltimore and one other city.

    Anyhow, great show. I was worried there would be no Gump reference in the Smiley Face segment, whew

  6. John

    Icons: the hamburger for website menus?

    Somewhat related to icons: I recall reading that clocks for sale used to be stopped at something like 10:10, with what turned out to be an apocryphal explanation about representing the time of a historical event, but more likely just not obscuring the maker’s name. But no such logic applies to clock icons or clip art. However, it seems most of those show both hands at or above the 9-3 line, and almost none show more than one hand below it. Is my perception correct? And, if so, why?

    Less related, but: a frustration in reading some blogs is inconsistency in directional page navigation. “Next” and “previous” may mean opposite things on different sites. Still others use a variety of word labels. (“Older” and “newer” make the most sense.) Providing a number line is the most clear, but often annoying because you get a limited set of numbers to click, and the only alternative to slowly clicking back, say, two at a time, is a double arrow sending you all the way to one end. As blogs live longer, that’s less and less useful. Also annoying: Providing a number line but also having single arrows to move one page at a time — why the redundancy? And number lines that are so tiny it’s difficult to consistently click the correct spot on phones or tablets. (Indeed, I’d be interested in any look at blog design changes — the death of blogrolls, the birth of continuous scroll, why Geocities sites had such hideous layouts and why most sites don’t now.)

  7. Kate Freed

    I would love to know who is behind the images on the care tags for clothing. They are too small to discern, and even with a magnifying glass I can’t figure out the meaning.

    Great episode. Thanks.

  8. phillip

    Thanks for another great episode.

    Just wanted to add that the song »On The Road from Aldermaston« by Matt McGinn appears to be based on »The Ballad of Roddy McCorley« from the 1890s which tells the story of the Irish nationalist’s death after being allegedly involved in the the Battle of Antrim.

  9. Katie

    I greatly enjoyed this episode – but had no idea how much until a question popped up in Trivia last night. “If you were going to communicate in semaphore, what would you need?” Clearly our Trivia Host is as much of a fan as I am!

  10. Michael Taylor

    I’d love to hear some history behind some ubiquitous sound effects. Why does everyone KNOW what a spider sounds like despite them never actually making noise? Why do we NEED to throw the sound of actual bowling pins over top of people being knocked over. Why does every gun have several invisible metal D rings attached to it that make noise anytime they’re moved?

    There are so many weird noises that we kind of require in media to make stuff “make sense” despite have zero basis in reality.

  11. Pip Jones

    I thought the power symbol was supposed to be a 1 and a zero joined together to look like a stylised light switch (the old chrome ones with a protruding stick the can be either up or down). I am surprised the visual similarity was not noted.

  12. Eric

    Great show! Thanks. As a youngster in the 1970’s I heard an (apparently fictitious) origin story for the peace sign: Derived from the “Make Love Not War” slogan, it depicted a man and woman in the missionary position inside a circle.

  13. Dan Smith

    I grew up during the 1960s. To me, the name for the peace symbol is “the drooping cross.” I was surprised that this name was not mentioned in the episode. I can’t tell you anything about the background of this name, sorry.

  14. Martin Badke (AKA @lauxmyth)

    I was struck for the call of icons at the end by two which are often used and yet are well out of date. I work as a locksmith and keep seeing businesses use keys which stopped being used in the 1800’s for advertising images. So called warded keys were used in European castles. However, now those same castle keep them as symbols not as working keys.

    The other dated symbol is that of indicating to somebody that there is a phone call across too much distance to noise to say it. You will see people simulate dialing a rotary phone while holding up a handset to their face. Granted, those phones exist but probably more in museums than in use.

    Enjoy the show every time.

  15. Another excellent episode! I would add that Captain Frederick Marryat standardized the navy flag signals with A Code of Signals (1817) and went on to compose the most wild and obscure flower code book, The Floral Telegraph (1836). Shameless plug for those interested in Marryat or flowers-as-code

    https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/victorian-literature-and-culture/article/captain-frederick-marryat-and-the-floral-telegraph-or-a-forgotten-coder-and-his-floral-code/D0F8F84EC1FB389B5B9360EE7CC2BF26

    Also, Symbol Sourcebook by Henry Dreyfuss is another great example of an attempt to universalize design and code across languages and disciplines in the 1960s.

  16. Julie

    I’m very curious about the male and female symbols. There’s got to be a good story there.

  17. Elena

    Hey, there’s an important typo in the transcript:
    ” Coupled with the D, this flipped figure could stand for “unilateral disarmament,” too, Holtom’s ultimate dream.”
    The audio says his dream was ‘universal disarmament’.

  18. Calum

    Doing a tacky and leaving a negativism comment when 99% of the time I enjoy the podcast yet don’t comment.

    It just seemed this was painfully self explanatory material / common knowledge.

    What 99pi listener wouldn’t glance at an on off symbol and see the binary? The peace symbol has been explicated ad infinitum. The info on smiley faces: “Did you know this is a versatile symbol with different meanings depending on context?” Mind blowing.

    IMO this was a weak sauce Wikipedia skim.

    Sorry! Decided to embrace the horror of leaving a negative comment and just go for it. Hope it is apparent that this criticism on has any definition as I thought this episode stood in contrast to your usually excellent work. This was 99 lite.

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