Though they’ve only existed for a relatively short time outside of Japan, emoji have become essential to everyday digital communications across the globe. Suddenly, it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have those colorful little symbols to add emotional context to social media posts and texts. 

Emoji are here to stay, and it’s time to consider their newfound status as the lingua franca of the digital age. But where did they come from? And how did they evolve? Herein, we present a compact history of the humble emoji, including emoji origin, and look at some imaginative forays into fine art emoji. We’ll also tell you how you can submit your own emoji designs to the consortium that decides them, if you think your designs are destined for the (very) small screen.

Fun emoji created in Joseph Adam’s Skillshare course  Emoji Design With Adobe Illustrator
Fun emoji created in Joseph Adam’s Skillshare course Emoji Design With Adobe Illustrator

Origin of Emoji

Before emoji there were emoticons—symbols created through unconventional use of a standard computer keyboard. The first emoticon was the immortal sideways smiley face 🙂 introduced by Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Scott Fahlman in 1982.

Fahlman invented the smiley and offered it to his students as a way to clarify the meaning of their posts on an early computer bulletin board—the smiley would let readers know when a post was intended as a joke. Emoticons were the early way in which people could illuminate the emotional content behind their written communications, just as emoji do today for millions across the globe.

Emoji Emerge in Japan

It would take another 17 years before the stars aligned and emoji sprung to life. Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita designed the first set of emoji in 1999, securing his place in history as the first emoji artist. Just like Professor Fahlman’s emoticons, Kurita’s were invented to solve a practical problem.

It was early days for the mobile web, and the Japanese telecom for which Kurita worked provided an email service limited to 250 characters at a time. Kurita imagined that a graphic yet humble symbol—like emoticons, but not generated by strokes on a traditional keyboard—would allow users to say much more with those 250 characters.

Kurita found inspiration for emoji (the name comes from the Japanese “e,” which means “picture,” and “moji,” which means “character”) in pictograms and manga, the popular Japanese comic books and graphic novels aimed largely at adults. Each emoji in Kurita’s initial set of 176 measured 12 pixels by 12 pixels for a total of 144 dots and 18 bytes of data, which hardly registers by today’s standards. But it was a design task of gargantuan proportions, as Kurita and his small team had five weeks to come up with the 176 symbols, each with a distinct and easily understood meaning and all created at actual size for use on the tiny screens of the time. Today’s emoji are created as scalable vector graphics.

Kurita’s original emoji are now part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which hosted a 2016-17 exhibition called “Inbox: The Original Emoji, by Shigetaka Kurita.”

Japanese emoji art
Japanese emoji art

Emoji Go Global

Though emoji caught on immediately in Japan, with multiple telecoms designing their own emoji, the phenomenon didn’t take root elsewhere until more than a decade later, and after major assists from teams at both Google and Apple.  

In 2007, a Google team focused on software internationalization petitioned the Unicode Consortium—a nonprofit that helps maintain computing standards across global languages, cultures, and computing platforms—to recognize and create standards for emoji that would allow them to be used and understood everywhere. An Apple team signed onto the effort in 2009 with a proposal that included 625 newly designed emoji.

After a period of intense study and negotiation in which representatives of the U.S., Germany, Ireland, and Japan played major roles, the Consortium adopted technical standards for emoji in 2010 with an official count of 722 emoji. Apple added an emoji keyboard to iOS in 2011 and the Android version was introduced in 2013. The Unicode standards include general guidelines and a core shape for individual emoji that can be finished in a variety of ways. That’s why an emoji sent on an iPhone often looks different when received on an Android phone, though it (hopefully) manages to communicate the sender’s intended message.

Now, emoji art is ubiquitous around the world. There’s even a holiday—World Emoji Day, celebrated on July 17—dedicated to emoji and their cultural impact!

A celebratory emoji graphic by  @worldemojiday
A celebratory emoji graphic by @worldemojiday

Submit Your Own Emoji

Today, anyone can submit a proposal for a new emoji to the Unicode Consortium’s emoji subcommittee, which meets twice a week to sort out submissions and address emoji-related issues. The proposal process requires that you explain your idea, provide evidence of its cultural reach, and submit some drawings of your own. Be aware that there is tremendous debate on cultural diversity and sensitivity as regards new (and old) emoji. This obstacle-filled pathway from proposal submission to potential smart-phone glory takes more than two years to complete. In the current era, approximately 150-200 emoji are added each year.

Learn how to make your own emoji in Alex’s Skillshare course  Make an Emoji and Understand Raster Effects & Gradients
Learn how to make your own emoji in Alex’s Skillshare course Make an Emoji and Understand Raster Effects & Gradients

Emoji as Art

Emoji are now found in every corner of the digital world. But that hasn’t kept those tiny symbols from maintaining a separate and much-celebrated presence in the worlds of art and pop culture.

In 2010—even before emoji went global—American Fred Benenson made waves with his emoji-only translation of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, inevitably (but hilariously) entitled Emoji Dick. Benenson not only funded the project through a crowdsourcing campaign, but also enlisted thousands of people to translate one sentence of the novel each, which were then subject to a public vote on the best work. The Library of Congress acquired Emoji Dick in 2013.

In 2014, Brooklyn artist Carla Gannis reimagined Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th-century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights as The Garden of Emoji Delights, layering hundreds of emoji over the original painting and describing it as a mash-up of “popular historic and contemporary sign systems.” A peak (or low point, depending on your point of view) for the cultural impact of emoji can be found in the 2017 attempted Hollywood blockbuster The Emoji Movie, which was reviewed by The New York Times with the unfortunate headline, “The Emoji Movie Can’t Escape Its Own Idiocy.” 

Emoji artist  Jake Yung  created this portrait of Oprah Winfrey using entirely emoji!
Emoji artist Jake Yung created this portrait of Oprah Winfrey using entirely emoji!

The Power of Emoji

All these examples of emoji’s cultural currency highlight the form’s extraordinary power as a truly universal language. The humble emoji may never replace the written word, but that was never their intended purpose. Emoji carry the unique potential to break barriers between languages, cultures, and people. Anything that allows anyone, anywhere to communicate without words (all while enjoying a little small-scale art) can only bode well for our shared and increasingly digital future.

Unique art emoji created by Skillshare instructor  Joseph Adam
Unique art emoji created by Skillshare instructor Joseph Adam

Ready to Make Your Own Emoji Art?

Quick & Dirty Sewing: Make an Emoji Pillow

Written by:

Ken Korman