Emoji: A Lovely History

Making Faces (and Other Emoji) Part 1

Hey all! I’m Colin (@colinmford, here and on twitter), a typeface designer at Hoefler & Co. I write short posts about the history, design, and technical details of emoji from a type designer’s perspective. You can find the other posts here. I also run workshops occasionally that help you design and build your own emoji from scratch.


NTT DoCoMo Pocket Bell (itmedia.co.jp)

The story of emoji, for our purposes, starts with love.

If you were a Japanese teenager in 1995, you needed to have a DoCoMo Pocket Bell pager. Besides sending short messages in the Katakana syllabary you could also send two symbols — a phone icon, which usually meant you wanted that person to call you, and a heart. Teenagers loved that heart. The Pocket Bell sold out of stores at the peak of its popularity, and little hearts were flying everywhere.

Before the Pocket Bell, Japanese teenagers with pagers would have to resort to coded messages using numbers (like “724106” for “What are you doing?” and “14106” for “I love you”), but now with the Pocket Bell they could say so much more with a heart.

Imagine getting a page from a boy you liked. The pager vibrates and chirps in your bag; you reach down and raise it to your face:

“What are you doing? ❤”

The heart makes yours beat a little faster. “Do they want to see me? OMG do they wanna make out?!”.

It would be different if the page just said “What are you doing?”… “Wow, that was blunt. What am I doing wrong? What should I be doing? OMG THEY HATE ME”.

A few years later (aka literally an eternity in high school relationships), DoCoMo added some Kanji and the Latin alphabet to the pagers. But, presumably to free up some memory on the device (but officially to make it more business-oriented), they got rid of the little heart. Japanese teens left DoCoMo in droves for their competitor Tokyo Telemessage. In the face of their mistake, DoCoMo turned their eye to the future—mobile phones and the internet. Their success in that field is partially due to emoji inventor Shigetaka Kurita.

Kurita was about 26 in 1998 when DoCoMo sent him as part of a team to San Francisco to check out Pocket Net, AT&T’s latest project. The goal was to put services from the Internet — like weather and news — into 90’s-era mobile phones that had screens smaller than a post-it note. DoCoMo was working on a version of that for themselves, called i-mode, and were looking to swap ideas.

Pocket Net was slow, slower than a 56kbps dialup connection, so it could only reasonably transmit text, no images. All the weather forecasts displayed text — “PARTLY SUNNY” — instead of showing a sun peeking from behind a cloud 🌤. This struck Kurita as unintuitive and a waste of valuable screen real estate, so he sought to do better for i-mode.

As a young person in the 90’s Kurita probably experienced sending and receiving hearts through the Pocket Bell. Even before the San Francisco trip he was thinking about adding heart and face symbols to i-mode phones for users to send to each other. But after the trip he realized it could be useful to have symbols for other uses, to denote weather, sports, and common places like the airport.

i-mode, like Pocket Net, was quite slow at the start. Sending the nascent emoji as images from user to user was out. Instead, the engineers at DoCoMo decided to encode Kurita’s 176 emoji in the private use area of the Shift JIS encoding, transmitting the little faces and weather symbols as if they were any other glyph, like “a” or “愛”. (What is “Shift JIS”, “Private Use Area” or “Encoding”? 📻 Tune in to part 3!). That also meant that the design of each symbol was up to the font on the phone. While phone manufacturers stayed true to Kurita’s designs for a while, that didn’t last.

Just like the little Pocket Bell heart, the other Japanese carriers soon provided their users with their own emoji. Some symbols looked pretty different than DoCoMo’s, with more color and even animation (we’ll talk art 🎨 in part 2). Eventually the carriers deviated so much from each other that users on one carrier couldn’t reliably send emoji to others. Imagine the confusion that ensued when you sent your crush “What are you doing? 💕” only to have it show up as garbled nonsense (or worse, a 💔 !). Not very romantic.

By 2008, emoji were an essential part of communication in Japan, despite the difficulties in crossing carrier lines. Communication companies looking to make a market in Japan left them out at their own peril. Google was trying to include them in the mobile version of Gmail and Apple was trying to figure out how to make them work on the iPhone, but the competing standards were giving them trouble. They wanted one standard set of emoji.

The solution came from Mark Davis, who had joined Google in 2006 to work on software internationalization. Before that he co-founded the Unicode Consortium and remained as president. Davis led the push for including a universal set of emoji in Unicode version 6.0. To this day not everyone is happy about this, but the fact is that this decision allows users all over the world to employ emoji pretty much anywhere (including here 👍 ).

Today emoji are used and loved by a lot of people. They’re internationally successful for the same reasons they were successful in Japan in the late 90’s and early 00’s—in addition to being useful shortcuts for nouns for everything from “Partly Sunny” to “Gas Station”, they act as emotional intermediates. Perfect for asking your crush what they’re doing without, you know, really talking to them. Because that’s scary 😰.


Next, in Part 2, I’ll get into the design history surrounding emoji (& symbols with text in general).

Thanks so much for reading!