Opinion

The little yellow smiley face: When business people get the credit for creativity

In his latest post, Dave Trott muses on a cautionary tale about the vulnerability of creatives pitted against those at the top of the corporate ladder.

In 1964, several American insurance companies had been merged together.

As always in these things, everyone wasn’t totally happy.

Some departments overlapped, everyone was trying to protect their job, so putting the different companies together created some friction among staff.

Management wanted to stop this overflowing into customer contact.

They needed a way to remind staff that the customers must feel valued at all times.

So they got a local designer, Harvey Ball, to design a graphic symbol that would raise staff morale.

And Harvey designed a little badge for staff to wear.

On the front it was just a simple yellow smiley face: two dots for eyes and a curve for a mouth.

On the back it said: “The SMILE insurance companies: Worcester Mutual. Guarantee Mutual. State Mutual of America.”

Originally just 100 badges were made for staff.

But everyone who saw them loved them and wanted one.

So 10,000 more were made.

Then another 10,000. Then another 10,000.

The little yellow smiley face became so popular everyone who saw it wanted one.

Harvey Ball was paid $45 for the design, but he never bothered copyrighting it.

Which was a mistake because in 1971 two brothers in Chicago, Bernard and Murray Spain, did copyright it, across the USA.

They just added the line HAVE A HAPPY DAY and began putting the smiley face on everything imaginable: T shirts, posters, socks, cups, belt-buckles, underpants.

They sold 50 million items in their first year.

Then a Frenchman, Franklin Loufrani, copyrighted the yellow smiley face in 100 other countries.

In 1996 his son, Nicolas, took over and The Smiley Company became massively successful worldwide.

Nicolas even issued a style guide and ‘designed’ the first smiley-face emoticons.

Today, The Smiley Company makes $130 million a year.

In 1996, Walmart began using the yellow smiley face in its advertising in America,

The French Smiley Company sued them.

The case dragged on for 10 years and made a lot of lawyers very rich.

But eventually, as expected, WalMart won.

So the little yellow smiley face made millions for the American brothers, millions for the French family, millions for WalMart, and millions for the lawyers.

In fact a lot of people got very rich from the little smile symbol.

All except for the person who designed it in the first place, Harvey Ball.

He made just $45 from it, because he never bothered copyrighting it.

Which just goes to show, having an idea isn’t the same as profiting from the idea.

And the people who profit from ideas are usually business people, not creative people.

Which is a good lesson about what we do.

When you look at the people at the top of holding companies, the people earning multi-million salaries are not the people having ideas.

They are the people who know how to profit from other people having ideas.

Dave Trott is a consultant, author and former ad agency creative director. This article was first published on his blog.

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