In 2016, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired 176 miniature drawings of faces, objects, and abstract places, all illustrated on a tiny 12×12 pixel grid. There are googly eyes, zodiac symbols, and oddly familiar smiles constructed from simple lines and square dots. At a first glance this new addition to MoMA’s collection might feel unlikely and strange, but after a closer look, you’ll recognize something important in the little, crude forms: they’re the original emoji, designed in Japan in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita at the Japanese telecommunications company NTT DOCOMO. These pixelated smiles are the great grandparents of the emoji that we now know so well, and the forms that would go on to revolutionise—and humanize— the way we communicate.
The Standards Manual imprint (the publisher behind reissues of the EPA and NASA graphic standards manuals) has just announced that it’s putting out a book of the original emoji, along with a smartphone keyboard that makes the set available on iPhone and Android for the first time. Simply called Emoji, this new release, currently generating funds on Kickstarter, honors Kurita’s creation and explores how communication icons have evolved with technology—charting how emoji have become the commonplace tools for emotional expression.
For those of you that had mobile devices in the mid-90s, you can probably remember how primitive the technology was compared to today’s: low-resolution screens only displayed black and white text, a glaring green light shimmering in the background. Mobile phones had one function and one function only: to make a call. Texting—or playing snake, in slightly later devices—was secondary.
“In 1998, Japan was far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of technology and they had much more advanced devices,” says Paul Galloway, MoMA’s architecture and design collection specialist, and part of the team that acquired Kurita’s design. “NTT DOCOMO had a really successful pager called the Pocket Bell, which displayed the first emoji—a heart. When they started to make the push into a truly mobile internet—a software platform called i-mode—they knew that they wanted a killer app or feature that would grab the attention of people in Japan.”
And so the first set of emoji was born, created by i-mode development lead Kurita, who proposed an ingenious way to incorporate images in the limited space on the screen. There was the sad face, the key, the bomb, and the enigmatic yellow cat. Released in 1999, these picture characters were an instant success—quickly copied by rival companies across the country. Within a few months, emoji was a phenomenon in Japan—used by kids far and wide. Other countries wouldn’t catch up until 2011 when Apple added emoji functionality to its iOS messaging app, and an international explosion of blushing, yellow smilies took place.
Kurita was informed by pictograms when designing the original icons, and he reused and repurposed existing forms like the cigarette shape from a ‘No Smoking’ sign. He also pulled from text emoticons like those used since the 80s, as well as manga and typographic forms. “It’s interesting that he designed them on a 12 x 12 grid, which is the exact same grid that Susan Kare used when she designed the original icons for Mac iOS,” notes Galloway. “This gives you an idea of how simple phone devices were at the time: a device from 1998-99 is roughly as powerful as a computer from 15 years before. We’ve now collapsed that difference and a portable devise is not drastically weaker than a laptop or desktop.”
DOMOCO developed three types of icons: images for content delivery (like weather icons, so that the user could see whether it was raining or shining), menu items (like arrows or an envelope symbolizing mail), and expressions for communication (smileys, like those we use today).
“We don’t rely on emoji to tell us the weather, the phases of the moon, or the signs of the zodiac now, so that content delivery aspect of their original conception is no longer necessary,” says Galloway. “The emotional communication—raised fists, smiley face, the heart—is what has become hugely important.” The functionality of the i-mode system was vital for the beginning of the mobile internet, but so far as how we use emoji now, what DOCOMO’s set established was a new kind of nuance in written communication, a set of signs to help us to understand one another on a distinctly emotional level even while hundreds of miles apart.
“Writing by text electronically is a deeply inhuman way to communicate,” adds Galloway. “We are built as animals to look at each other, to smell each other, to respond to non-verbal ques. Japan is a very formal society—in writing, there are all these salutations and formal ways of addressing someone, which 10 years ago especially, you couldn’t do on a tiny screen.” DOCOMO’s emoji become an incredibly efficient way of short cutting those requirements.
“They are also so abstract that they lend themselves to multiple interpretations. The faces are clearly the most abstract and basic information that you need to make a face: eyeballs and a mouth. There are no intonations of race or nationality or age. Now that you have emoji where there are all these attempts to include new forms—like a woman in a hijab, a dumpling, a taco—there’s this continual embrace of more and more, but actually I think that starts closing off some of the looseness that made these original emojis so powerful.” Galloway notes that if you head to places like Twitter Tracker to see which emoji are the most used, the most popular are still the ones derived from DOCOMO’s set, like the laughing face with tears streaming from its eyes.
Shortly after DOCOMO’s emoji hit the scene, essential classics like the poop emoji appeared in Japan to the delight of users, and many more facial expressions were added to create even more expressive distinction. Many of the original Japanese icons are still very clearly felt in the emoji that we now know and love. As Galloway points out, you can still find traces that derive from Japanese characters and forms; their entrenched cultural meaning is often lost on users in the rest of the world.
“The red-faced devil is a Kabuki mask for example, which has a specific meaning in Japan: everyone knows that one character for his arrogance and his brashness. Users in the West might think it’s a malicious devil. There is also the hot springs icon, and the cherry blossoms: both have very specific connotations.
“I find it fascinating how language can begin in one place—or in this case, forms with a specific use—and then once it gets out there into the world, it’s no longer in the hands of the creator. It’s in the hands of people: they make their own meaning from it.”