Emoji are cute. It’s easy to think they’re just for teenagers whose phones are permanently glued to their hands. But, as ever with the humble emoji, there’s so much more beneath the surface — in form, function, history, and future.

Emoticon vs. Emoji

Emoticon? Emoji? 🤔

The words emoji, smilies, and emoticons are often used interchangeably — but they mean very different things.

The figure below, representing a smiling face, is an emoticon: a pictographic representation created by combining different typographic characters.


Users are limited only by their imagination and the 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 the complex and decorative, such as in Japanese kaomoji (the term is the combination of ‘kao,’ meaning face, and ‘moji,’ meaning character).

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

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 various reasons to use emoticons or emoji, the most obvious being to imbue writing with a level of expression and emotion not achieved by the text itself.

Fahlman’s statement that a visual marker is “probably more economical” highlights the second factor in emoji or emoticon use: the fact that many modes of modern communication have a limited number of characters. Traditional text messages, or SMS (Short Message Service), have a limit of 160 characters, for example. We often feel like we need to add extra layers of meaning, or to substitute longer words in the form of abbreviations or pictograms — without racking up extra phone charges, of course.

Eventually, through combining an added layer of information with the prescriptive nature of text-based messaging, people started to use emoji and emoticons as a stylistic addition to their communications. Certain pictograms became multi-layered hieroglyphs 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.

Kurita-san intended to create a set of “characters that could cover the entire breadth of human emotion.” He designed 176 12×12 pixel emoji covering a range of people, places, and things.

Why would he feel the need to take on this challenge? The aspiration to cover all of human emotion seems more fitting to a literary work or 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 (via character limits set by services like Twitter or SMS), by the amount of communicating we can consume at one time (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.

Humanity’s 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 real 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 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 ancient but also unbelievably modern. Initially, humans dealt with ideograms and pictographs, which evolved into letters and marks that represent a single sound. With the rise of emoji, humans seem to be moving back to this idea of text as image.

Six 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. On a global scale, one can see how emoji as a shorthand is key to how we communicate.

Ironically, however, as we’ve become more open and easily connected through technology, it’s become harder for us to understand each other correctly. Emoji are a way to complete that connection, to circumvent limitations of space, time, style, and even spoken language itself. In 2014, for example, the most popular word wasn’t even a word — it was the heart emoji, ❤️, according to the Global Language Monitor. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s 2015 Word of the Year wouldn’t be considered a word in the normal sense; it’s the emoji 😂, or “face with tears of joy.” The reason for this choice, highlighted by Casper 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.”

Some may argue that the OED was grabbing for headlines with the choice. While it may seem populist, it does truly reflect how we interact with each other in contemporary culture.

An Evolving Language, Culturally and Visually

Not Safe For Instagram?

Unfortunately, limitations and censorship go hand in hand with all forms of communication. This has already begun to affect emoji. In 2015, Instagram allowed users to tag and search posts by emoji, but they quickly banned searches of the aubergine emoji, 🍆, because as a cultural marker it was used as a replacement for a penis. Instagram’s somewhat puritanical stance is questionable, 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 officially added it for everyone. Angela Guzman, an intern at Apple in 2008, describes how she designed the ubiquitous icons here.

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

For example, is this a high-five, or hands in prayer? Originally, it was the latter; but in more recent Unicode releases it’s been updated to “hands pressed together.” The design itself has also been updated to reflect this change, losing the rays of beatified light and styling the hands to be more closely pressed together. If it is sent in a message within the right context, however, 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 😃💥

Recently, we’ve witnessed an explosion of emoji — both in messaging and in the real world. As these ideograms and symbols become more widespread and understood, they’ve been subverted, assimilated, and re-calibrated within mainstream culture.

If you’re not quite sure where to get started with emoji, or what particular characters mean, you can head to Emojipedia, a glossary of emoji across multiple platforms. Emojitracker.com gives you real-time data on the type and number of emoji used on Twitter. If you’re feeling self-reflective, you can submit yourself to some Emojinalysis, where the analyst proposes: “you show me your recently used emojis. I tell you what’s wrong with your life.”

Where real, high-definition information is being transmitted — as in a cogent sentence, or a President’s speech — the emoji falls flat on its shiny yellow face.

Emoji have also evolved to become typographic characters in themselves. Movie plots and song lyrics are sometimes “acted” out, line by line, with emoji. The challenge is in trying to substitute larger complex themes, ideas, and words into combinations of emoji to create readable sentences. The classic Herman Melville novel Moby Dick was reimagined in emoji (through the use of crowd-sourcing). The print and production of Emoji Dick, or 🐳, was also crowd-funded. While I applaud the effort, I’m not sure one can improve upon Melville’s iconic opening line, “Call me Ishmael,” by reducing it any further. The book was entered into the Library of Congress in 2013.

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

Other attempts to use emoji as the main vehicle for longer-form texts include the translation of President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union into emoji-first sentences. This seems fun on the surface, but it’s ultimately difficult to understand. Because of the lack of “vocabulary” in the emoji set, individual symbols are used for many 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? 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. In 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 its shiny yellow face.

Emoji IRL 💃 🏢 💰

Emoji IRL by Liz Nelson

Artists have also embraced emoji. The Emoji Art Fair in New York surveyed the spread of emoji through popular culture through print, textile, and interactive exhibitions. Some of the key pieces were an Emoji Autism Facial Recognition Therapy installation, a printed zine that accompanied the show and featured essays on emoji and culture, and my personal favorite, a series by Liz Nelson of photographic emoji reproductions called “Emoji IRL.” More recently, emoji have been part of exhibitions at Art Basel and the original emoji designs have been added to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Emoji reliefs even adorn one facade of an urban development in Vathorst, near Utrecht.

We’re seeing more and more expression of emoji IRL. It seems they’re not just a flash in the pan (or going the way of Alf and Pogs) — they’re a part of our shared understanding. At the very least, there will be emoji on the side of a building in the Netherlands for at least a few decades.

Emoji as Typographic Character

One area of future interest is standardization. Because emoji are Unicode based, they render differently from system to system. What seems like a warm and friendly golden heart to you can be a disgusting hairy heart to an Android OS user. Apple, Google, and Facebook — who all have a large stake in how emoji are used across not just on their own platforms, but across different linked systems — are trying to mitigate this issue as full voting members of the Unicode Consortium. Emoji are big business. Tech leaders see them as key features to attract and retain users.

Emoji rendered in different styles by Apple, Google, and Facebook

But isn’t it part of the fun when emoji get lost in translation? If we look at emoji as typographic characters, should there be a set of graphic communication standards for each symbol? A lower-case ‘a’ is a lower-case ‘a,’ regardless of its formal classification and design — sans, serif, script — but it’s taken thousands of years of writing, reading, and printing for that basic shape to be comprehensible in all its forms. There are distinct differences between each major platform’s formalization of the Unicode character standards. Maybe the next leap in emoji will come when we can use different forms of the same emoji to add extra meaning to our communications — a subtle geometric emoji for use online, and a more embellished emoji for use in formal communications, like a wedding invitation (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.” Sometimes, 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.

Designers, typographers, and visual communicators 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 increased use of emoji. There are already 1,620 emoji in Unicode 8, including the eagerly awaited taco—released to much fanfare. Part of the ongoing interest in emoji is this open forum with a controlled release; it brings a sense of “fashion” to the emoji world and keeps them from going stale.

In the future, will we compare different renderings and styles of emoji like we compare typefaces today? Could we explore emoji for different sizes? A headline emoji, for instance, that can be used on printed newspapers (if they’re still around).

As an indicator of the growth of post-digital culture and typography, emoji are quickly becoming the first truly global language. We’re living in a fascinating age.


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