From 1999 to 2020: how the emoji became part of our visual culture

Sometimes an emoji really does say it best

Say it forget it, write it regret it, put it in an emoji? You can claim you meant something else. Unsplash / Bernard Hermant
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If you have a smartphone, chances are you use emoji.

How many of us turn to these ideograms when we want to make a point or soften the blow of a harsh text? And how many times have we tried to interpret a seemingly random arrangement of “heart, unicorn, palm tree and prayer hands”?

Friday marks World Emoji Day, an unofficial celebration of the little pictograms that play such a big role in our daily lives.

So what has made the emoji so popular?

What you write is your word, but with emoji, you can say 'that's not what I meant'

The ease and speed of emoji use, along with the ability to wield it in these layered ways adds to the appeal, says Goffredo Puccetti, a professor of the practice of visual arts at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). “I would say that the massive success of emoji, making it so rapid and widespread, clearly suggests that there was a need to be more comfortable in this over-connected universe we live in,” he says.

“What you write is your word, but with emoji, you can say ‘that’s not what I meant’. It would be too much, too painful, too personal, too dangerous to say these things in person. Emojis offer a shortcut, but they also allow some kind of cover,” he adds.

The invention of the emoji

It’s easy to think that the creation of emoji came alongside the invention of the smartphone, but they’ve been around since the 1990s as a more evolved rendering of the emoticon, which used colons, dashes and parenthesis.

The emoji’s origins can be traced to Japan: the word comes from two Japanese words – “e” for picture and “moji”, which means character.

In 1997, Japanese network carrier SoftBank released a set of 90 unique emoji, which were black and white pixelated line designs. Their characters included the thumbs up, heart, and smiley faces. Two years later, another Japanese telecom company, NTT Docomo, released 176 original emoji in colour, designed by engineer Shigetaka Kurita.

The 1997 SoftBank designs:

Though emoji were used on webpages and online messaging over the years, it was in the 2010s that the use exploded, after a set of around 700 emoji were internationally standardised in 2009 and Apple added an emoji keyboard to its operating system in 2011.

“When it was adopted by other platforms, notably Apple and the Android system, plus the use of Facebook and Twitter… that’s where it really started to be used as the language they are now,” Puccetti says.

The 1999 Docomo designs:

Why emoji are so important now

Today, there are 3,304 pictograms available in the Unicode Standard.

The triumph of emoji can also be attributed to how adaptable they are to those who use them.

“It allowed a specific group or subgroup to communicate with themselves. It’s a way to spot who’s in the group and who’s outside the group. This is a dynamic that is very powerful, especially among young people,” Puccetti explains.

Emoji are so deeply embedded in our daily communications that they have found their way into visual culture: from art to movies to marketing.

Puccetti argues that emoji, apart from just being a technological invention, draws from the history of modern design.

Take the smiley with the yellow face, created in 1963 by commercial artist Harvey Ball, for example, which has become ubiquitous in music, movies and art.

"I want to emphasise the role of the designer rather than IT gurus. They say that the emoji started in 1999, but one of the most powerful and most used emoji now is the heart. And that started with I Love New York," he says, referring to Milton Glasner's 1976 creation that became the basis of a tourism campaign for New York.

With their simplicity and ability to cross linguistic and cultural boundaries, emoji also proved to be suitable for awareness campaigns. In 2015, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched their #EndangeredEmoji online fundraising campaign on Twitter which featured a set of 17 emoji that represented endangered species. Domino’s Pizza ran a less altruistic campaign with its ‘tweet ordering’, where customers in the US could simply text the pizza emoji to instigate an order.

Also in 2015, Oxford Dictionaries announced their Word of the Year was a pictograph – “Face with Tears of Joy”, the one we may call the lol emoji.

Two years later, Sony Pictures released the widely panned The Emoji Movie where all of the characters were based on emoji faces and graphics. There's also Emojiland, a 2018 stage musical that imagines emoji as having inner lives and their own dramas.

Such is the cultural impact of emoji that the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture and design department acquired the 1999 set of emoji by Kurita, citing the importance of the invention in visual language as the driving force for their decision. The museum exhibited an installation displaying the set from 2016 to 2017.

How artists use emoji

Artists have turned to emoji in various ways, some using it as material, as in the case of Yung Jake, who makes portraits of figures such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd through an assembly of emoji. Then there’s New York artist Tre Reising who has created glittering sculptures of face emojis and a wooden sculpture of the “poop emoji”.

American conceptual artist John Baldessari, who died in January, often contemplated visual representation and imagery in his work. He developed a series of emoji paintings that played with the scale of these tiny characters, which we typically only see on screens, blowing them up onto large canvasses.

How they respond to, or reflect, our times

Today, the language of emoji continues to grow, with smartphone operating systems continually adding new characters to its database. On Friday, Apple previewed an upcoming emoji pack of 117 characters that it will add to its iOS this year. These include a babushka doll, ninja, dodo bird, heart and lungs.

Emoji have also proven themselves to readily respond to or simply reflect our times. In the midst of the pandemic, Facebook rolled out new reactions on the platform, including a hug and pulsating heart to allow for more virtually shows of support.

After the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, Apple’s iOS keyboard now auto-suggests the black first emoji when you type “BLM” or “Black Lives Matter”.

With the ever-evolving use, is it possible to predict what’s next for the emoji? “I would say there’s a lot of scope. I can see emoji, again, filling a void here and there,” Puccetti says, adding that a language like Arabic, which is more “difficult” and “time-demanding” to use electronically may develop shortcuts in the form of emoji.

“With communication, we just don’t know what’s going to happen next. I think the emoji demonstrates that. It will be fascinating to have these kinds of conversations five years from now because everything is changing,” he says.