Why Are Smiley Faces and Emojis Yellow and Who Invented Them?

Funny emoji faces on a yellow background

Smiley faces and emojis are an ever present part of the modern world. The smiley face has been around long enough that multiple generations have grown to adulthood alongside it. And emojis are a centerpiece of digital communication. We use them to show the full breadth of our emotional range when text space is at a premium. But where do these familiar yellow designs actually come from?

We’ve become so used to both emojis and smiley faces that we often forget that they were drawn and colored by real people. The bright yellow of the sun may have been created by nature. But the equally bright yellow of a smiley face was decided upon by specific individuals. So where did the design and color of the smiley face and emoji come from?

The People Most in Need of a Smile

Original smiley face made by Harvey Ross Ball from the Worcester Historical Museum in Massachusetts
Image: Garchy at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We might assume that such festive and colorful designs would come from an equally joyful source. In reality the smiley face actually comes from one of the most mundane sources anyone could imagine. The cheerful visage reminding us to try to make every day great actually comes from the insurance industry.

The State Mutual Life Assurance Company was facing a serious problem with their employees. The life insurance industry isn’t exactly well known for joyful exuberance. Literal life and death situations are sure to get anyone down. And a combination of difficult mergers had made things even more stressful within the insurance agency. The firm’s management decided that they wanted to do something to raise employee morale.

The company hired a graphic artist named Harvey Ross Ball to design something which could help cheer people up. State Mutual Life Assurance Company would soon be filled with posters, signs and buttons featuring the yellow smiley face. The design was such a hit with employees that it soon spread outside the company. The yellow smiley face was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1963. However, this was just the beginning of its evolution over the years.

Lack of Trademark Helps Our Yellow Friend Move to New Endeavors

Yellow Post-it with the text Have a nice day and a smiley face

Neither Ball or State Mutual Life Assurance Company had any idea of just how popular the smiley face would be. Likewise, neither party had filed for a trademark or copyright on the design. For Ball it was just a quick project he whipped up in about ten minutes. And the life insurance agency never imagined that their internal morale campaign would spread outside of the company. Nobody involved with the initial smiley face design had any inkling that it would be popular for years – let alone decades.

But two brothers, Bernard and Murray Spain, did see potential in the design. The pair encountered Ball’s smiley face in a button shop. They simply added the phrase “Have a Happy Day” (later changed to “Have a Nice Day”) to the design and copyrighted their revised version of Ball’s work. The pair was well aware of the fact that Ball came up with the design. But this didn’t stop the brothers from taking credit for their revised version of it.

Interestingly enough the Spain brothers did make some minor changes to Ball’s design. The original design from Ball features some asymmetry. The eyes are slightly different sizes from each other. Ball’s design also lacks the modern full arc for a mouth. Instead, the smile on Ball’s work features a more subdued arc. These distinct points will soon become useful in determining the smiley face’s evolution.

The Smiley Face Sets Up Shop on a Distant Shore

Portrait of a smiling French woman wearing red beret reading newspaper

In 1972 the yellow smiley face would appear in the French newspaper France Soir. The familiar smile made its European debut thanks to Franklin Loufrani. The journalist insists that he came up with the design on his own. However, the fact that it shares traits with Ball’s design makes many people assume that Loufrani borrowed it in the same way as Bernard and Murray Spain. The actual origin of the yellow smiley face might seem like a footnote at first. But it’s important to keep in mind that origin also suggests ownership. Franklin Loufrani was the first person to register the smiley face for commercial use. And his son Nicolas now sees a profit of over a million dollars per year with the Smiley Company.

Saying that the ownership of the smiley face is convoluted would be an understatement. Even financial giants like Walmart have a hard time navigating use of the smiley face. And this is where we return to the smiley face’s distinct yellow color. A small change such as modifying the color of the smiley face would give companies a lot more leverage for legal use. Why wouldn’t a company as big as Walmart simply change that distinctive yellow color to something else?

Color Evokes Emotion

Happy woman in casual clothes jumping and spreading hands isolated on yellow background

The simple fact is that the yellow smiley face evokes happiness. And that isn’t just due to the fact that it’s smiling. Studies have shown that yellow tends to evoke feelings of happiness. Yellow is especially evocative of the sun and all the positive emotions which come with it. We can speculate that the smiley face’s round design may remind us of the sun as well.

What’s more, yellow is a well known way to get people’s attention. It’s often used on safety equipment for that exact reason. Our eyes are just naturally drawn to the color yellow. And by considering all of these elements we can start to see why yellow is such an important part of the smiley face design.

Yellow grabs people’s attention and predisposes them to positive feelings. The actual smile in the smiley face design serves to further influence a positive demeanor. On top of that we also have decades of association between the smiley face design and the concept of smiling in general. Multiple generations have come of age in a world where the smiley face is a part of day to day life. We recognize the elements of a smiley face in the same way that we recognize stop signs or traffic lights. The distinctive colors of all of these, and the smiley face, send clear messages to people who’ve reacted to them all of their lives.

We have an instant reaction to a red stop sign. We don’t need to pause and actually read the word “stop” on the sign. Instead, we recognize a stop sign instantly due to its distinct red color and shape. It makes sense to tie new messages into pre-existing emotional connections. People in Western countries have a long standing association between smiley faces and the color yellow. When we see a smiley face we instantly think of yellow. And yellow will, in turn, often make us think of smiley faces. This may be in part why we’d see yellow move over to emojis.

The Early Days of the Emoji in Japan

Set of yellow colored smiley faces and emoji icons

Today people often associate the color yellow with emojis. But this wasn’t always the case. Shigetaka Kurita created emojis all the way back in 1999. It’s interesting to note that this initial emoji set didn’t even include facial expressions. We wouldn’t see yellow faces show up in the emoji set until Apple released it as part of their emoji keyboard in 2008.

The emoji set was in large part the creation of two Apple employees. Angela Guzman and her mentor Raymond Sepulveda were given the task of creating a new set of emojis specifically for Apple. It’s important to keep in mind that the iPhone was fairly new to the market at this point. This also means that smart phones themselves were a fairly new idea to most people. Anything Apple put on their iPhone had a high chance of setting standards for all smartphones to follow.

The team was tasked with creating an emoji set loosely based off of the pre-existing standard set by Shigetaka Kurita. By 2008 this was known as Softbank’s emoji set. Interestingly enough the Softbank set did have a smiley face. However, the Softbank smiley face was purple rather than yellow. We can assume that this is due to the fact that Japan had less exposure to the yellow smiley face than Americans or Europeans.

Likewise, we can reason that the smiley faces in Apple’s new emoji set was probably yellow simply due to the standard set by Harvey Ross Ball. New emoji sets would try to maintain compatibility with Apple. This meant that most companies would also use similar colors to Apple when designing emojis. Emojis were officially added to the unicode standard in 2010.

Setting a New Standard With Unicode

Yellow unicode emoji set with smiley faces

Unicode set a standard for skin tone in emojis. By default an emoji depicting people should use a generic non-realistic skin tone. It offers RGB #FFCC22, a shade of yellow, as an example commonly used for smiley faces. While not explicitly stated we can assume that this references both the prior work by Apple and the yellow smiley face first created by Ball.

Prior to this standardization people generally followed Apple’s lead. And Apple does deserve a lot of credit for creating an unofficial emoji standard prior to 2010. With the standard in place companies now had solid documentation to aid their color choices. This leads us to the present day where yellow faces are still ubiquitous in emoji sets.

A Long Journey From Analog to Digital Spaces

Group of people holding yellow emoji smiley faces

Looking back from the present day we can say one thing for certain. The yellow smiley face was a perfect combination of color and form. It began in a small and unlikely place. Nobody expected an internal campaign within a life insurance firm to spread out into the world. The fact that it did, and would go on to achieve international recognition, speaks to the smiley face’s bold simplicity.

The smiley face’s happy yellow visage clearly speaks to people. And it’s been able to communicate that happy message through bright yellow colors for about sixty years now. It’s moved from very humble beginnings on pins and posters to the high tech supercomputers we all carry around in our pockets.

Read Next: Why Are Most American School Buses Such a Distinct Shade of Yellow?