The Origins of the Nirvana Smiley Face Logo

Nirvana’s smiley face logo is one of the most simple band logos out there, yet it’s also one of the most recognizable. That black and yellow happy face with crossed-out eyes has been a tried-and-true t-shirt design for edgy teenagers and cool dads ever since the early 90s, and while it started out in the dark underbelly of grunge music, nowadays the Nirvana logo about as mainstream as it gets.

Being such a simple logo, one might assume that there wasn’t much of an artistic journey or story behind it, and one would be correct. For years the story has been that Kurt Cobain drew the logo back in 1991, around the time that the band released their famous album Nevermind and forever left their imprint on the music industry.

The logo then appeared on all of the band’s merchandise in the most well-known form: a yellow smiley face over a black background with the word “NIRVANA” printed over top in the Onyx font.

The choice of the Nirvana font dates back to before the smiley face logo, in the year 1989 when Nirvana released their debut record, Bleach, via Sub Pop records.

Sub Pop had a graphic designer and art director at the time named Lisa Orth (who is now a tattoo artist). She was the label’s very first official art director and she was responsible for designing Nirvana’s early records.

When she was asked to design the cover for Bleach, she paid typesetter Grant Alden $15 to use whatever font he had programmed into his machine at the time, and Onyx was the one he spat out. That was good enough for Orth, who was working with some no-name band on some no-name label that apparently already owed her money for past work.

Now, of course, the Onyx font is famous for being the Nirvana font, as it went on to be printed on almost all of their subsequent future releases.

As for the Nirvana smiley face logo — that one first appeared on a poster for the private Nevermind album release party held on September 13th, 1991.

On that invitation the smiley face was printed in black, on a white background, and minus the Onyx-font “NIRVANA” that it later became famous as a pair with.

The invitation to Nirvana’s Nevermind release party in 1991.

It wasn’t until Nevermind achieved atmospheric levels of success that the smiley logo appeared in combination with the font all over t-shirts and every other piece of Nirvana merchandise that you can imagine.

From there it has been forever cemented in the public mind as the logo for a band that had so much potential but fell apart far too soon due to frontman Kurt Cobain’s struggles with drug addiction and mental illness (or perhaps a murder by his wife, Courtney Love?).

Legal Controversy

More recent times have brought up some legal controversy surrounding the Nirvana logo, which has led to discrepancies concerning the actual origin of the logo.

In November 2018, fashion designer Marc Jacobs released a collection called the Redux Grunge Collection that includes a spin-off of the Nirvana design that he crafted with some slight alterations. Upon catching wind of this collection, the Nirvana estate filed a law suit against Jacobs for copyright infringement, claiming that Jacobs ripped off the Nirvana logo in the creation of his design.

The Marc Jacobs happy face design does indeed resemble the Nirvana logo, but instead of crossed-out eyes Jacobs uses the letters “M” and “J”, and instead of the word “NIRVANA” printed in Onyx, Jacobs uses the word “HEAVEN” in that same font.

The case has yet to reach a verdict on whether or not Jacobs will be found guilty of copyright infringement, and was delayed in 2020 due to COVID, but is expected to go to trial in 2021.

Side-by-side of the two t-shirt designs in question.

This legal battle has brought forward a new development in the story of the Nirvana symbol. In the past Kurt Cobain has always been given credit for the design, and thus the copyright is owned by his estate (a.k.a. Courtney Love and Francis Bean Cobain), but in September 2020 the former Geffen Records art director Robert Fisher came forward to claim that it was he who first drew the logo and not Kurt Cobain.

Now, this is a believable story as Fisher did indeed design much of the band’s artwork while they were on Geffen Records, but the question remains as to why in the heck he waited 29 years to come forward and claim his place as the designer. And since the Marc Jacobs team is now trying to claim that the copyright is invalid since Cobain did not draw the logo, it makes this new development seem even more “Fishy”.

Regardless, Marc Jacobs is getting a whole lot of free press for his lame Nirvana spin-off, and the Nirvana estate is making a big deal out of nothing.

In my humble opinion this is one of those things that should never have become a law suit in the first place, as it seems like a whole bunch of unnecessary drama over a few squiggly lines and a random font that some Flower Sniffin’, Kitty Pettin’, Baby Kissin’ Corporate Rock Whores made famous in the 90s.

The back of Nirvana’s classic smiley face t-shirt, still in print today. Available at Nirvana.com.
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