The Man Behind the Icon: Harvey Ross Ball and the Birth of the Smiley Face

July 15, 2023, William J. Stone

In a world filled with iconic symbols and logos, one simple yet ubiquitous image stands out: the smiley face. But do you know the man behind this cheerful symbol that has managed to transcend cultures, generations, and borders? Meet Harvey Ross Ball, the graphic artist whose creation has become a universal expression of happiness.

Born on July 10, 1921, in Worcester, Massachusetts, Harvey Ross Ball’s artistic talents began to flourish at a young age. After serving in World War II, Ball returned home and pursued a career in advertising and graphic design. Little did he know that his biggest breakthrough was just around the corner.

In 1963, a local insurance company, State Mutual Life Assurance Company, approached Ball with a unique request. They wanted a design that would boost employee morale, and Ball was up for the challenge. He spent a mere ten minutes creating a simple, circular face with a bright yellow background, two dots for eyes, and a broad, upward-curving smile. That’s how the smiley face, as we know it today, was born.

Ball’s design was an instant success. Employees at State Mutual loved the symbol, and its positive impact quickly spread beyond the company’s walls. The smiley face’s contagious positivity caught on like wildfire, with its message of happiness and goodwill resonating with people across the country.

Recognizing the immense potential of this design, Ball decided to copyright it in 1971. However, as the smiley face’s popularity soared, its meaning and significance became more complex. It began appearing on all sorts of merchandise, from t-shirts and buttons to posters and bumper stickers. With its widespread commercialization, the smiley face began losing its connection to its creator, Harvey Ross Ball.

Despite this, Ball remained humble and continued to work as a graphic artist, dedicating his life to promoting peace and harmony through his art. He even established the World Smile Corporation, a non-profit organization, which aimed to create positive social change by spreading happiness and kindness.

Ball (seated) at a public signing, 1998

Sadly, Harvey Ross Ball passed away on April 12, 2001, leaving behind a legacy that continues to touch the lives of millions worldwide. Today, the smiley face has transcended its origins as an advertising symbol and become an international symbol of joy, appearing in a wide range of contexts, from digital communication to charitable campaigns.

In recognition of Ball’s contribution, the world celebrates World Smile Day on the first Friday of October each year. This day serves as a reminder of the power of a simple smile to brighten someone’s day, just as Harvey Ross Ball’s creation has done for decades.

As we encounter the smiley face in our daily lives, it is essential to remember the man who brought it into existence. Harvey Ross Ball’s vision and creativity have left an indelible mark on popular culture, reminding us of the enduring power of a simple, happy face.

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