Hard to pinpoint the exact where and how, but the yellow smiley face was invented somewhere, somehow.
Overwhelming historical evidence points towards American graphic designer Harvey Ball being the initial black-on-yellow creator, paid $45 ($495, or £380, today) in 1963 to design a cheery little face to put on buttons and badges and stuff, to gee up the staff of the State Mutual Life Assurance Company during a hostile takeover. The artist drew the smiley face – one eye bigger than the other, entirely yellow, smile fixated and embellished by two cheeky dimples, That Little Smiley Fella – in ten minutes, then the company distributed it via 100, then 10,000, then countless more badges and other accessories.
Smiley faces had existed as a concept before, of course – Czech monk Bernard Hennet worked one into his signature in 1741, poet Johannes V Jensen wrote both happy and frowny faces in letters to his publisher in 1900, and this year a pot from 1700 BCE was uncovered, rebuilt and found to have a smiley face printed on it – but drawing it out in that iconic yellow and black didn't happen properly until the 60s.
Ball never applied for a trademark on the design, though. The first person to do that was French journalist Franklin Loufrani, who trademarked "Smiley" (the smiley face has a name) (the yellow boy is called "Smiley") in 1971 and used it to highlight feel-good stories in the newspaper France Soir.
Soon, this turned into a licensing juggernaut, the face featuring on T-shirts and pens and frisbees – so many frisbees – throughout the 1970s and 80s. Then acid house and the Second Summer of Love happened – which was basically just loads of lads in Kappa joggers with their eyes going in different directions, dancing for two straight years in a field, thrashingly euphoric on ecstasy – and Smiley became a sort of unofficial logo of that, promptly booming and busting.
In the mid-90s, with the idea of "a small yellow smiley face being printed on things" now so played out it was close to archaic, Franklin's son Nicolas joined him in the licensing-the-smiley-face-out business, and somehow turned its fortunes around. SmileyWorld Ltd now owns the rights to the logo in over 80 countries and turns over $265 million (£204 million) every year.
The engine room of SmileyWorld, London, Southwark, daytime. We do not know whether teens like Smiley or not, and so we are trying to figure it out. Things teens like: snacks, assorted. Things teens don't like: cereal, any. Backpacks are more of a tween thing; teens like shotter bags. Teens like T-shirts, but only stylish ones: a large, middle-of-the-tee Smiley is too young for them; a subtle, embroidered black-on-black Smiley is more their pace. There is a long discussion about the placement and size and colour of a single Smiley on a single black T-shirt, for teens. There are whiteboards and mood boards. Everything – everything – has a smiley face on it, or is in the shape of a smiley face.
It is actually a bit overwhelming to be bombarded with so much saccharine positivity: it is very hard to be unhappy in an office where even the shoes, flasks and teapots are smiling. "What's it like here on a hangover?" I ask the Marketing Director, Matt Winton. "Yeah, it's…" he looks at a lunchbox, lurid yellow and grinning. "Yeah."
The SmileyWorld team is planning some upcoming market research: French teens are going to be trapped in a room for an hour-and-a-half and quizzed on which Smiley-based trends and non-trends they react most to. There are moodboards of camouflage Smiley, and marble-effect Smiley too. Minimalist Smiley – Smiley in black, and white, and white-on-white, and black-on-black, for the minimalist, crouch-pose Instagram baes – is also being floated.
It works roughly like this: Smiley takes its cues from the industry-standard trend forecasting of WGSN, which predicts a couple of seasons ahead (SmileyWorld is currently working on its 2019 line). They take a cutting edge trend – let's say, uh, jungle print? Let's say that – and figure out how they can work a Smiley into it, then mock it variously up: Smiley on jungle-print cushions, or jackets; Jungle-Smiley as the back-face to a watch. Then they send those mocks to various companies who might want to work on a collaboration, and license the Smiley image to them. Or they'll market research the fuck out of it and put it out on their in-house brand, Smiley.
Smiley is a broad church – on the table here there's a sack of 3D-printed plastic Smiley collectible toys for kids, which cost a few pence, while in the corner there are Moschino and Anya Hindmarch collabs, which cost way more than that. As soon as you know to look for it, suddenly there are Smiley faces on everything: when we hop into an Uber to our next meeting, there's a grinning air freshener dangling from the rearview.
Arguably, Nicolas' masterstroke in turning Smiley from a dying post-rave non-brand into a multi-million pound toys 'n' Hindmarch operation was his decision to diversify the smiley face and turn it instead into a sad face, or an angry face, or a sick face, or a laughing face. It's what he calls his "Smiley Dictionary" – a list of icons and glyphs that make up a sort of supra-language over the top of our own, and its late-90s invention did two things: firstly, it turned SmileyWorld from a simple smiley face licensing operation into an actual brand; secondly, it helped lay the foundations for the smiley face and emoji languages we know and use today.
"I decided to change the logo to lots of different expressions to make it become more like a character expressing different emotions," Nicolas explains. "The first step was to design it in 3D, so I made it 3D. Then I started working on the emotions, lots of different emotions. I realised I could take it to different nations, just putting flags behind. I could do objects. I started doing different categories of Smiley. Lets do more of this. That became emoticons."
This was all happening around the time the internet came in: chat programmes like AOL and MSN Messenger, with their own small, ten-smiley keyboards, marked the transition from old ASCII smiley faces to standardised pictographs. Nicolas' Smiley dictionary was a natural progression. In 2001 he put an ad out advertising "the birth of a new universal language", and digitised his dictionary. "That's when they started to boom," he says. "We sold tens of millions of products of things that were pushed online."
In 1999, in Japan, early moves were made on the emoji language that's currently having a moment, with its very own Hollywood movie (6% on Rotten Tomatoes!). The two languages share a common tongue but are not the same. "They have different art direction," Nicolas says, explaining a sad lack of Bloods vs Crips Emoji–Smiley beef. "But [emojis] are definitely inspired by our smileys. They are yellow faces. They have a more Kawaii, Japanese direction in the face, but they are inspired by what we do." And since emoji started snowballing in popularity, so Smiley has too. "They started around 2010, when Apple started to include emoji in the Unicode. It started getting used by a lot of internet platforms and then it became a huge phenomenon. A renewed phenomenon."
We're at Pretty Green now, where Smiley have collaborated with the Liam Gallagher-fronted brand for a range of complicated mod-dad jackets and T-shirts with the yellow boy printed on them. "We're really lucky because we're constantly aligned to these trends," Nicolas explains. "Music is a constant trend – it never dies. And now we've got the thing with the emoji, and the alignment to that." There are plans next year to deploy Smiley in association with the boom in mental health awareness campaigns – a dubious trend, but let's go with it anyway. "We're aligned to three of these trends – happiness, music and emoji – which are three of the biggest cultural trends at the moment. So it keeps us constantly relevant."
That's part of the enduring appeal of Smiley: that every time you see it you do a little internal heh of recognition. Heh. Alright. It's what lets it nestle in this curious space between a full-blown brand and a pictograph: the brand value, "happiness", basically never goes out of trend, sad tumblr teen aesthetic aside. It taps into this weird primal part of us that cheers up when we see the colour yellow and direct sunlight, that makes us smile when other people smile. That weird infectious synapse snap of positive emotion. Little yellow lads who live in your phone.
Speaking of, I ask Nicolas what his most-used emoji are. A revelation: "I still use old school emoticons, actually," he says, showing me a phone where he actually types out smiley faces like your mum does.
Oh my god, you're the inventor of the smiley and you still use colon and brackets? Are you kidding me?
You have to see my signature. My internet signature.
He shows me a typed-out smiley face, like fucking olden days.
Even on WhatsApp I still use this one. You know, it's reflex. I'm used to it.
Unfuckingbelievable. All this progress. For what.