Though they’ve only existed for a relatively short time outside of Japan, emojis have become essential to everyday digital communications across the globe. Suddenly, it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have those colorful little symbols to add emotional context to social media posts and texts. Even corporations have adopted emojis into their marketing messaging, hoping to add a much-needed “human” element to their online advertising campaigns.
Emojis are here to stay, and it’s time to consider their newfound status as the lingua franca of the digital age. But where did they come from? And how did they evolve? In celebration of World Emoji Day (July 17), we present a compact history of the humble emoji, and look at some imaginative forays into emoji fine art. We’ll also tell you how you can submit your own emoji designs to the consortium that decides them, if you think your designs are destined for the (very) small screen.
Origins of Emojis
Before emojis there were emoticons — symbols created through unconventional use of a standard computer keyboard. The first emoticon was the immortal sideways smiley face :-) introduced by Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Scott Fahlman in 1982.
Fahlman invented the smiley and offered it to his students as a way to clarify the meaning of their posts on an early computer bulletin board — the smiley would let readers know when a post was intended as a joke. Emoticons were the early way in which people could illuminate the emotional content behind their written communications, just as emojis do today for millions across the globe.
Emojis Emerge in Japan
It would take another 17 years before the stars aligned and emojis sprung to life. Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita designed the first set of emojis in 1999. Just like Professor Fahlman’s emoticons, Kurita’s were invented to solve a practical problem.
It was early days for the mobile web, and the Japanese telecom for which Kurita worked provided an email service limited to 250 characters at a time. Kurita imagined that graphic symbols — like emoticons, but not generated by strokes on a traditional keyboard — would allow users to say much more with those 250 characters.
Kurita found inspiration for emojis (the name comes from the Japanese “e,” which means “picture,” and “moji,” which means “character”) in pictograms and manga, the popular Japanese comic books and graphic novels aimed largely at adults. Each emoji in Kurita’s initial set of 176 emojis measured 12 pixels by 12 pixels for a total of 144 dots and 18 bytes of data, which hardly registers by today’s standards. But it was a design task of gargantuan proportions, as Kurita and his small team had five weeks to come up with the 176 symbols, each with a distinct and easily understood meaning and all created at actual size for use on the tiny screens of the time. Today’s emojis are created as scalable vector graphics.
Kurita’s original emojis are now part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which hosted a 2016-17 exhibition called “Inbox: The Original Emoji, by Shigetaka Kurita.”
Emojis Go Global
Though emojis caught on immediately in Japan, with multiple telecoms designing their own emojis, the phenomenon didn’t take root elsewhere until more than a decade later after major assists from teams at both Google and Apple.
In 2007, a Google team focused on software internationalization petitioned the Unicode Consortium — a nonprofit that helps maintain computing standards across global languages, cultures, and computing platforms — to recognize and create standards for emojis that would allow them to be used and understood everywhere. An Apple team signed onto the effort in 2009 with a proposal that included 625 newly designed emojis.
After a period of intense study and negotiation in which representatives of the U.S., Germany, Ireland, and Japan played major roles, the Consortium adopted technical standards for emoji in 2010 with an official count of 722 emojis. Apple added an emoji keyboard to iOS in 2011 and the Android version was introduced in 2013. The Unicode standards include general guidelines and a core shape for individual emojis that can be finished in a variety of ways. That’s why an emoji sent on an iPhone often looks different when received on an Android phone, though it (hopefully) manages to communicate the sender’s intended message.
Submit Your Own Emoji
Today, anyone can submit a proposal for a new emoji to the Unicode Consortium’s emoji subcommittee, which meets twice a week to sort out submissions and address emoji-related issues. The proposal process requires that you explain your idea, provide evidence of its cultural reach, and submit some drawings of your own. Be aware that there is tremendous debate on cultural diversity and sensitivity as regards new (and old) emojis. This obstacle-filled pathway from proposal submission to potential smart-phone glory takes more than two years to complete. In the current era, approximately 150-200 emojis are added each year.
Emojis as Art
Emojis are now found in every corner of the digital world. But that hasn’t kept those tiny symbols from maintaining a separate and much-celebrated presence in the worlds of art and pop culture.
In 2010 — even before emojis went global — American Fred Benenson made waves with his emojis-only translation of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, inevitably (but hilariously) entitled Emoji Dick. Benenson not only funded the project through a crowdsourcing campaign, but also enlisted thousands of people to translate one sentence of the novel each, which were then subject to a public vote on the best work. The Library of Congress acquired Emoji Dick in 2013.
In 2014, Brooklyn artist Carla Gannis reimagined Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th-century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights as The Garden of Emoji Delights, layering hundreds of emojis over the original painting and describing it as a mash-up of “popular historic and contemporary sign systems.” A peak (or low point, depending on your point of view) for the cultural impact of emojis can be found in the 2017 attempted Hollywood blockbuster The Emoji Movie, which was reviewed by The New York Times with the unfortunate headline, “The Emoji Movie Can’t Escape Its Own Idiocy.”
The Power of Emojis
All these examples of emojis’ cultural currency highlight the form’s extraordinary power as a truly universal language. Emojis may never replace the written word (or damage it beyond repair, as some observers fear), but that was never their intended purpose. Emojis carry the unique potential to break down barriers between languages, cultures, and people. Anything that allows anyone, anywhere to communicate without words (all while enjoying a little small-scale art) can only bode well for our shared and increasingly digital future.
Want to learn more about icon design? Edward Boatman’s Skillshare Originals class, Icon Design: Creating Pictograms with Purpose is a great place to start.