The staying power of the smiley face

The yellow smiley icon was born in 1963 in Worcester, Massachusetts, when the graphic designer Harvey Ball was approached by State Mutual Life Assurance Company to create a morale booster for employees. As the story goes, it only took ten minutes for Ball to create an icon that would knit itself so firmly in the fabric of American culture that we’d be compelled to file lawsuits and contemplate it for decades to come. He was paid a whopping $45 for his work. …

Why have these symbols at all? Marcel Danesi, an anthropology and semiotics professor at the University of Toronto, said that symbols are like “little capsules [that] tell us what things are about — in our own terms.” Not unlike language, they “form a kind of rhetorical system that undergirds a whole society. We live by symbols.”

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