🙇🏻🚫🤐😁✌🏻— Meaning without words: an emoji revolution

As an indicator of the growth of post-digital culture and typography the use and prevalence of emoji is part of the development of what could be the first truly global language.


This was originally presented in 2015 at Face Forward in Dublin, the international peer-reviewed conference focused on typography.

On the surface a paper about emoji doesn’t really seem like the most obvious way to kick off an ‘international peer-reviewed conference on typography’. They’re cute, not serious, there’s a perception that they are just for teenagers with their phones permanently glued to their hands… but, as ever with the humble emoji there is more to it than seems on the surface — in form, function, history and future.

Emoticon vs Emoji

Emoticon? Emoji? 🤔

First some clarification is required as there is often some confusion around the various forms embodied in emoji, smilies and emoticons.

Emoticons can range from simple combinations of easily accessible keyboard characters to multi-glyph combinations using more obscure glyphs.

This figure – :-) – representing a smiling face is an emoticon, which is a pictographic representation created by combining different typographic characters. Users are limited only by their imagination or available character set. These combinations can range from the very quick and simple (as first illustrated by Scott Fahlman on a college message board in 1982), to complex and decorative, such as in Japanese kaomoji (the term is the combination of ‘kao’ meaning face, and ‘moji’ meaning character).

By contrast an emoji is a pre-defined ideogrammatic character in itself, based on the defined standard from Unicode. In comparison to the smiling face emoticon this — 😀 — is the emoji version (its official designation is actually ‘grinning face’).

A multi-layered hieroglyph for the 21st century

There are varying reasons for using emoticons or emoji, the most obvious being to bring a level of expression and emoting into written communications that is not covered in the text or punctuation itself, without the aid of added illustration or images.

Fahlman’s statement that a visual marker is ‘probably more economical’ highlights the second most prominent factor in emoji or emoticon use, the fact that many modes of modern communication have a reduced or limited number of characters that can be sent. Traditional text messages or SMS (Short Message Service) have a limit of 160 characters, so the need to add extra layers of meaning, or to substitute longer words in the form of abbreviation or pictogram — while also not wracking up extra phone charges — was part of the challenge. The third factor is that through a combination of both the added layer of information and the proscriptive nature of text-based messaging’s capacity people started to use emoji and emoticons as a stylistic addition to their communications, where certain pictograms became a sort of multi-layered hieroglyph for the 21st century.

The original emoji character set, designed in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita

The original set of emoji were designed in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita for the Japanese phone carrier NTT DoCoMo, on their i-mode platform, the world’s first internet enabled mobile service.

There were 176 12×12 pixel emoji designed, covering a range of people, places and things, or as Kurita-san intended a set ‘characters that could cover the entire breadth of human emotion.’

Why would he feel the need to take on this challenge? The aspiration to cover the entire breadth of human emotion seems more akin to the great literary works or a musical opus. When we communicate through electronic or digital devices our full range of emotion is inhibited on multiple levels — by the technology we use (such as character limits set by services like Twitter or SMS), by the amount of communicating we are open to and have to get through (text-based communications by their nature are short and ephemeral) and crucially by the lack of non-verbal or inferred communication (body-language and intonation), which simply can’t be replicated in bits and bytes. This desire to create a language that goes beyond mere words is not entirely new in its conception, but the technology available to us today makes it a possibility.

The ancient art of text as image

Tracing the evolution from Phoenician pictograph for cow, through to A phonemes and back to cow again.

Human beings have been making marks as a means of communication for millennia, from marks on cave walls to codified writing systems. The need to make a mark, to transmit an idea, information or meaning from you to another human who is not actually with you when you make that mark is incredibly ancient but also unbelievably modern. The interesting thing is that initially humans dealt with ideograms and pictographs, which evolved into letters and marks that represent a single sound, and with the rise of emoji seem to be moving back to this idea of text as image.

At the original time of writing 6 of the top 10 most popular apps in use today are messaging apps, and these apps have some of the highest use sessions for mobile and web users. So, on a global scale one can see how emoji as a shorthand within this mass of messaging is really key.

The irony is that as we have become more open and more easily connected through technology and devices, the harder it is for us to understand each other correctly. Emoji serve as a way to complete that connection and get around our limitations on space, time, style and even spoken language itself. For example, the most popular word in 2014 wasn’t even a ‘word’; it was the heart emoji — ❤️. The Oxford English Dictionary ‘word of the year’ in 2015 wouldn’t be considered a word in the normal sense, it is the emoji 😂 — ‘face with tears of joy’. The reason for this choice highlighted by Caspar Grathwohl, president of the OED was because ‘in terms of written communication, the most ascendant aspect of it wasn’t a word at all, it was emoji culture.’

There is an argument to be made the Oxford English Dictionary may have been grabbing for headlines with the choice, but while it may seem populist it is a reflection of how we as a culture are interacting with each other.

A language evolving culturally and visually

Not Safe For Instagram?

Unfortunately limitations and censorship go hand in hand with all forms of communication and this has already effected emoji. In 2015 Instagram allowed users to tag and search posts by emoji, but they quickly banned the aubergine emoji 🍆 because as a cultural marker it was used as a replacement for a penis, and is used to represent it in messages. Instagram’s somewhat puritanical stance looks odd though when you consider that users can still search by gun, knife, pills, skulls, bomb and cigarette 🔫🔪💊💀💣🚬 🤔

One of the driving factors in the ascendance of emoji culture dates back to 2011 when Apple added an emoji keyboard to its iPhone operating system, iOS 5. It was originally intended only for the Japanese market, but once users in other countries found they could add the keyboard via a work-around in the OS Apple added it officially for everyone.

The popularity of emoji is such that even outside the original meanings associated with particular symbols from Japanese society, they are universally understood, or at the very least more easily convey an approximation of what sender and receiver both mutually understand.

For example, is this a high-five, or hands in prayer? Originally it was the latter, but was updated to ‘hands pressed together’ in more recent Unicode releases. The design itself has also been updated to reflect this change, losing the rays of beatified light, becoming more closely pressed together. If it is sent within the right context in a message though, the meaning is open enough to be correct either way. This is part of the beauty of emoji as a representation of both thought and language.

An Emoji explosion 😃💥

Over the last number of years we’ve seen an explosion of emoji both in use within messaging, and in the real world. As these ideograms and symbols have become more widespread and understood, they have been subverted, assimilated and recalibrate within mainstream culture. If you’re not quite sure where to get started with emoji, or what particular characters mean then you can reference Emojipedia, an online dictionary and glossary of emoji across multiple platforms. Emojitracker.com gives you a real-time data on the type and number of emoji being used on Twitter. If you are feeling self-reflective you can submit yourself to some Emojinalysis, where the erstwhile analyst proposes ‘you show me your recently used emojis. I tell you what’s wrong with your life.’

The fact that emoji have evolved to be typographic characters themselves has also been explored, most notably in this initial phase as movie plots or song lyrics being ‘acted’ out line by line with emoji. The challenge comes in trying to substitute larger complex themes, ideas and words into combinations of emoji to create readable sentences. To further emoji’s place as a populist medium, the classic Herman Melville novel Moby Dick was created by crowd-sourcing the work of translating the text line by line into emoji. The print and production of ‘Emoji Dick or 🐳’ was also crowd-funded. While I applaud the effort, I’m not sure that one can better Melville’s iconic opening line ‘Call me Ishmael’ by reducing it any further. The book was though acquired and entered into the Library of Congress in 2013.

President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union in emoji

Other rather trying attempts to use emoji as the main vehicle for longer-form tracts of information include the translation of President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union into emoji-first sentences. On the surface seems like a fun endeavour but ultimately is trying and because of the lack of ‘vocabulary’ in the emoji set, many individual symbols are used for different meanings, causing a cognitive problem that individual letters grouped into words avoid.

My own personal opinion on the continued use and evolution of emoji is that they work best in a narrow band at either end of the communication spectrum — as short punctuating but impactful signifiers, where space and time are at a premium, or abstracted out and used as a form of collage or in-your-face decoration. The middle-ground, where real, high-definition information is being transmitted — as in a cogent sentence, or a President’s speech — the emoji falls flat on it’s shiny yellow face. We will await with interest the upcoming Emoji Movie, which seems like an indicator that we have 🏄🦈 (jumped the shark), but anything with Sir Patrick Stewart playing the 💩 is worth a look.

Emoji IRL 💃 🏢 💰

Emoji IRL by Liz Nelson

Artists and publishers have also embraced emoji as a means of expression. The Emoji Art Fair in New York surveyed the spread of emoji through popular culture, with print, textile and interactive exhibitions. Some of the key pieces were an Emoji Autism Facial Recognition Therapy installation, and a printed zine that accompanied the show and featured essays on emoji and culture, and my personal favourite a series photographic reproductions of emoji by Liz Nelson, called Emoji IRL. More recently emojis have been part of exhibitions Art Basel and the original emoji designs have been added to the collection of Museum of Modern Art in New York.

More and more we are seeing emoji express themselves in real life. Emoji reliefs adorn one facade of an urban development in Vathorst, near Utrecht. If anyone thinks that emoji are a flash in the pan (or going the way of Alf and Pogs) these things are a part of our shared understanding and at the very least there will be emoji on the side of a building in The Netherlands for at least a few decades.

One area of future interest is standardisation. As emoji are Unicode based, they are rendered differently from system to system, and what seems like a warm and friendly Gold heart to you can be a disgusting hairy heart to an Android OS user. This issue is seemingly being weeded out as companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook — who all have a large stake in how emoji are used across not just on their own platforms, but consistently across different linked systems — are all full voting members of the Unicode Consortium. Emoji are big business and are seen as key features to attract and retain users on a platform.

Emoji rendered in different styles by Apple, Google and Facebook

Emoji as Typographic Character

Is part of the fun that emojis can still get lost in translation? If we look at emoji as typographic characters should there be a set of graphic communicative standards for each symbol? A lower-case a is a lower-case a, irrespective of its formal classification — sans, serif, script — but it’s taken thousands of years of writing, reading and printing for that basic shape to be comprehensible in all it’s forms. There are distinct differences between each major OS and platforms formalisation of the characters in the Unicode standard, but maybe the next leap in emoji use will come when we can have use of different forms of the same emoji to add extra meaning to our communications — a subtle geometric emoji for use online, a more embellished emoji for use on say formal communications like a wedding invite, where traditionally a florid script might be used.

Finally there are some interesting technical attributes to emoji, not least the Zero Width Joiner, a spacing character that for want of a better explanation creates emoji ‘ligatures’. Some explorations around this are fanciful, such as the pictured ice cream emoji where different combinations of individual pictograms create a new and distinct character.

Apple recently caused a mini mystery with the inclusion of the ‘eye in speech bubble’ emoji 👁‍🗨. Was it a symbol for a new app or messaging system they were developing? The answer was that Apple had created a custom emoji to support an anti-bullying campaign called I AM A Witness. By using two existing emoji “the eye” 👁️ and “speech bubble” 🗨️ they managed to get around the official Unicode approval process and create a new and unique emoji. The character was officially added to the Unicode standard Emoji 2.0 in 2015, and is available for use across other OS.

Love them or hate them as designers, typographers and visual communicators, we are at the forefront of embracing new technologies, methods of expression and means of communication. The ongoing work of Unicode is vital to the spread and increase of emoji. There are already 1620 emoji in Unicode 8 including the eagerly awaited taco released to much fanfare. There are also another 67 emoji candidates for release next June. Part of the ongoing interest in emoji is as there is this open forum with a controlled release it keeps a sense of ‘fashion’ about the whole thing and stops them from going stale.

In the future we may be looking at the case for comparing different renderings, styles of emoji in the same way that a humanist sans can be compared to a geometric sans? Could we explore emoji for different sizes, a Headline Emoji for instance, that can be used on printed newspapers (if they are still around.)

As an indicator of a the growth of post-digital culture and typography the use and prevalence of emoji is part of the development of what could be the first truly global language.

✌😘️

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