This post was written by Garry Arnot

The Evolution of the Smiley Face

March 20th is the International Day of Happiness. At the Interactive Design Institute we would like to celebrate happy design from happy designers. It could be argued that the ultimate ‘happy’ design is the ‘smiley face’, first seen in 1963 on the children’s television programme, ‘The Funny Company’. Since then this iconic image has taken many different forms and today we take a closer look at a few of the developments of the design over the last 51 years.

1.       Watchmen

Watchmen smiley face

The Watchmen comic book series adopted the ‘smiley face’ design from the first issue. It appears as a badge worn by a character known as “The Comedian”. A blood splatter incorporated in the upper left quadrant is said to represent the minute hand of a clock, signifying twelve minutes to the hour with an implied connection to the Doomsday clock, and that we are close to ‘catastrophic destruction’.  The “smiley face” is given an ironic and menacing twist in this version of the design.

2.       Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump Smiley face

The expression, ‘Have a Nice Day’ and the ‘smiley face’ logo helped define how America and Americans wanted to be seen in the 1970’s, as typified by a scene in the film, “Forrest Gump”, starring Tom Hanks. During Forrest’s three year road run, he is handed a yellow t-shirt and uses this to wipe mud from his face, thus leaving behind a reverse pattern of the ‘smiley’. At this time, the icon took on a new meaning and was a symbol of hope and encouragement for the nation.

3.       Mr Happy

Mr Men Mr Happy


In the early 1970’s, children’s author Roger Hargreaves began writing his famous ‘Mr Men’ series which depicted 49 different personalities. Three books in to the franchise, he created Mr Happy who took on the ‘smiley face’ design. This helped introduce the symbol to a younger generation with Hargreaves’ character personifying the positive qualities of the logo.

4.       Nirvana

Nirvana Smiley Face

The design of the ‘smiley face’ adopted a grungy new look in 1991 when it was used as a logo for American rock trio, “Nirvana”. The yellow and black colours are reversed; the face has a yellow outline and black background. Furthermore, the eyes appear as crosses, the lines are skewed and a tongue hangs loosely from the mouth. This design has ties to the acid house scene and has been subject to various interpretations as to its meaning. The crossed out eyes motif was also used by the pop-punk band, Blink 182 on the cover artwork of their eponymous fifth studio album, possibly in homage to Nirvana.

5.       Mankind

Mankind Logo

In the 1990’s, World Wrestling Federation superstar Mick Foley took the ‘smiley’ in a new direction when his sadistic character, “Mankind” embraced the design, blending it with his own brand of happiness. “Mankind” had  unkempt hair, wore baggy white shirts, eccentric ties and a brown leather mask reminiscent of the character Hannibal Lecter in this version of the logo. His catchphrase was of course, ‘Have a Nice Day’, juxtaposing the positive connotations of the original symbol with his themes of pain and violence.

6.       Pacman


The Pac-Man arcade game is possibly as recognisable as the ‘smiley face’ itself. However it could be argued that the Pac-Man character is simply another version of the smiley face, turned on its side and with an open mouth. It has been suggested that the creator of the Pac-Man symbol, Tōru Iwatani based the character on a pizza with one slice missing. Other suggestions include the theory that the symbol is a simplified version of the Japanese character for mouth, kuchi.

7.       Banksy

Banksy Smiley Face

Bristol-based graffiti artist Banksy has become famous for distorting universally recognised iconography, and he has openly attacked global brands such as Tesco, McDonald’s and The Disney Corporation. In this example, Bansky has hijacked the ‘smiley face’ for inclusion in a piece of street art featuring an armed soldier. Banksy’s work is often darkly comic; his juxtapositions serving as propaganda for anti-war or anti-establishment campaigns.

8.       Emoticon


Across the digital age, we have seen a rise in virtually instantaneous online and text messaging. This has led to a rash of short cuts and symbols. When users of the social media wish to express their happiness, they use a new version of the ‘smiley face’ which has been ingeniously compiled using a colon, hyphen and a closing bracket; the digi-smiley emoticon.

9.       Galle

smiley face crater

Galle is a Martian crater which is named after the astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle. It is included here because it appears to incorporate a ‘smiley face’ within its structure. This has resulted in an alternative name for this naturally occurring phenomenon; the ‘happy face crater’; demonstrating how the “smiley face” symbol has become integral to our culture. The crater even appeared in a story in the aforementioned “Watchmen” graphic novel series due to its close resemblance to the ‘smiley face’ icon.

10.       Pharrell Williams

Pharell Williams Happy Poster

This year, International Happiness Day has found an unlikely partner in the American hip-hop and R&B artist Pharrell Williams. He is enjoying huge success after reinventing himself this year, as demonstrated by his number one record ‘Happy’ which is playing a big part in the International Happiness Day celebrations. His feel-good personality is a perfect fit with the message of the campaign and he plans to mark the occasion with a 24 Hour You Tube event, which will encourage fans to post their home-made video renditions of his number one tune. Williams has embraced the logo and is pictured above sporting a tee shirt with the iconic “smiley face displayed on the front.


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