authentic communication

Smiley Face Saves Lives

Great communicators are able to be effective in a simple and personalized way.We’re all familiar with those vehicle-activated signs that clock us as we drive by. In a study conducted in England last year, the signs didn’t just tell drivers their speed. They showed them a smiley face or a sad face, depending on whether they were under or over the limit. The number of people exceeding the speed limit in the area fell by more than 50%.The smiley face has been around since 1963, when the late designer Harvey R. Ball was hired to create a button for the unhappy employees in a merger of two insurance companies. Years later Ball told a reporter from Associated Press that me made a circle with a smile for a mouth on yellow paper, because it was “sunshiny and bright.” Then, he turned the drawing upside down and the smile became a frown. Noticing the power of that simple turn of paper, Ball turned it “smile-side-up” added two eyes. The ubiquitous smiley face was born.Ball was paid just $45 for his artwork in by State Mutual Life Assurance Cos. of America — now Allamerica. But he became an icon and received letters from all over the world thanking him for Smiley. How do you put a price on that? He enjoyed the recognition and died in 1979 without regrets.

The next time you’re tangled up and making a message difficult, consider the smiley face. What could be more basic to humanity? We prefer to make people happy and avoid making them sad. We will slow down for a smile. And by the way, the smiley face vehicle-activated signs operate at about 2% of the cost of a speed camera.

*This post was inspired by ad man, author and speaker Rory Sutherland.


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Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review,,, and Fast Company.