Grave of the Week: Harvey Ross Ball, Father of the Smiley

Today is Father’s Day. Now that I have kids, it matters somewhat more to me than it used to, but I still largely view it as a Hallmark holiday. Therefore, even as I wish it earnestly to my own fantastic father and the various and sundry fathers I know, I’ll choose to celebrate it here with a short thank you to Harvey Ross Ball, the father of another ubiquitous, commercialized facet of modern life: the smiley face.

This hung on my ceiling, circa 1994

Harvey Ball, it should be noted, created the now iconic image as a quick assignment from an insurance firm he did advertising for. He never copyrighted it, and never profited from it. Still, his creation of it has become legend, and certainly the creation itself has had an impressive life of its own. Ball created it in the 60s and it spread quickly; by the 1970s it had become part of the “Have a Nice Day” design and increasingly – especially as the 1980s dawned – it morphed into something of a statement of vapid yuppiedom, so much so that parodies and satires emerged in the 1990s yuppie backlash (I recall owning a poster with something like 50 joke variations on the smiley, which I probably bought in Newbury Comics around 1994). Nirvana’s take is, I think, still iconic.

What we didn’t realize then was how important the smiley was about to become: with the rapid popularization of online communication, the smiley became a critical communicator of humor, used to denote emotional happiness and to indicate to a reader that a statement they might have taken offense to was meant in jest. It was here that it morphed into a series of text-based punctuation puns, each meant to evoke a new emotion, from happy [ 🙂 ] to sad [ 😦 ] to angry [ 😡 ] to this guy: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It became even more crucial when texting emerged in the mid 2000s, and has morphed further into the modern emoji. Amazingly, the simple design Harvey Ball created in the early 60s in Worcester Massachusetts might just be the most important communicative symbol of our time.

So, happy Father’s Day to all fathers who, like Harvey Ross Ball, could never have known what amazing accomplishments that thing they created in ten minutes would eventually achieve.

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