Reading Time: 4 min | Jul 2023

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Emoji: A brief history of ✨🎨📱🙌

How design helped written communication move beyond just words

Image: Excerpt from the NTT DOCOMO, Inc. original emoji set.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. When character count is limited or your thumbs are tired, a thousand words in a single picture is the way to go. Maybe that's why most popular chat messengers like WhatsApp and Telegram let you respond to a message with an emoji.

Initially ridiculed by language purists, the colorful symbols are changing how we communicate with each other. They reflect our everyday lives and how we see the world. New technologies, new professions, new ways of thinking about gender roles - our society is in constant transformation. Emoji are also constantly evolving.

In 2022 alone,

31 new emoji are proposed to be added to the set of 3,600+ already existing ones. One of our favorites: the shaking face emoji.

Here’s a quick timeline of the emoji evolution

In 1999, lead developer Shigetaka Kurita created 176 emoji for the release of the Japanese mobile internet service i-mode at NTT DOCOMO. At the time, text messages were limited to 250 characters, so emoji became a new way for people to creatively express themselves. Even if it's not the very first emoji set ever, it's at least the one that made emoji popular worldwide.

The Unicode Consortium focuses on developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalization standards. To put it more simply – thanks to the Unicode Standard, text in any language can be displayed on any computer and in any modern software product. In 2010, emoji officially became part of the Unicode Standard and could since be used cross-platform. If you want to return the favor to the small non-profit company for this huge achievement that made our lives way more fun – just adopt an emoji!

In 2013, Emojipedia, a sort of Wikipedia for emoji, was launched. In addition to the meaning of individual emoji, you can see how they look on other operating systems or platforms. The blog features regular updates on new trends, statistics and research around emoji. For example, did you know that July 17 is World Emoji Day📅?

In 2015, 😂 was selected as Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries. That decision alone shows the importance of emoji in language. A few years earlier, critics correctly pointed out that certain images of food, flags or family constellations did not correspond to the reality of all people. Traditional African dishes for example, or same-sex couples were missing. But in 2015, emoji finally received a diversity update. Since then, other skin tones based on the Fitzpatrick scale have been available in addition to the default yellow. It’s an ongoing process.

With the freshly released iPhone X in 2017, you were suddenly able to turn your face into a fox, a unicorn, or even a pile of poop 💩 with just a swipe. Apple was able to track over 50 muscle movements with the new camera and transfer them to one of the selected emoji in real time. 

Scanning human emotions through an algorithm - what initially looked like a dystopian vision of the future for some became a fun interaction and contributed to a general acceptance of the technology.

The future of emoji

Who actually decides which emojis there will be in the future and what they will look like? First, public proposals are submitted to the Unicode Consortium. Then the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee deliberates and decides based on some criteria.

Here’s a quick run-down:

a) Will the image work at the small size at which emoji are commonly used?

b) Does the emoji add to what can be said using emoji or can the idea be expressed using existing emoji?

c) Is there substantial evidence that a large number of people will likely use this new emoji?

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