The story of emoji

How the journey of how one market’s love of the love heart lead to the establishment of a vast visual language that today has the capability to connect the world.

How the journey of how one market’s love of the love heart lead to the establishment of a vast visual language that today has the capability to connect the world.

It’s early November, 2016 and Unicode, a non-profit built to ensure emoji stays consistent across devices and operating systems, announces 56 additions to its library.

These additions are a representation of both social progress and social media progress. Among the additions are a female wearing a hijab, a woman breastfeeding, and a face with a hand covering its mouth.

But before emoji were a reflection of our changing social sensibilities, they were a small feature, mostly known to the Japanese mobile phone market, that could make text messages strangely emotional.

Today, we follow the journey of how one market’s love of the love heart lead to the establishment of a vast visual language that today has the capability to connect the world.


It begins with love

It was the late 1990s and sales of pagers were booming.

The ability to send and receive a digital love heart had been created and shaken up the Japanese market. It provided a glimpse of what was possible. A playful, pixelated object that made dry text, all of the sudden, emotional.

Telecommunications company, NTT Docomo, was the first to include the symbol on its Pocket Bell device, which sent its popularity soaring. At one point hitting a 40 per cent market share.

But when they abandoned the love heart in favor of adding more standard features for the Kanji and Latin alphabets, their popularity plummeted.

Enter Shigetaka Kurita.

An employee of NTT Docomo at the time, Kurita was given the task of finding a solution to the plummeting sales.

He began analysing why the original love heart symbol had been so, well, loved.

The answer? Because it was expressive.

“So that’s when we thought, if we had something like emoji, we can probably do faces,” he told The Verge in 2013. “We already had experience with the heart symbol, so we thought it was possible.”

He approached manufacturers like Sharp, Panasonic and Fujitsu in the hopes of using their design resources to work on the project, as he himself was an economics major, not a designer.

But for various reasons they knocked him back, and left him to do it himself.

So with paper and a pencil, him and his team created 176 12 pixel by 12 pixel characters that could cover a large variety of emotions and expressions, and add a sense of humanity to text.

Among that original group, which was inspired by Kurita’s love for manga comics, was the love heart that had started it all, rightfully restored to the character library of NTT Docomo’s once popular device.

Selling the first set

Once him and his team were done, he brought the finished set back to the manufacturers that had initially rejected his proposal, expecting them to refine his designs and incorporate them in their own unique ways.

But, to his surprise, they took the set as it was and implemented it into their devices without making any alterations at all.

“The good thing about that was that everyone’s emoji were identical,” he tells The Verge. If each manufacturer had added their own originality to the characters, the emoji would have been all mixed up and inconsistent, even inside Docomo.”

However, because Docomo wasn’t able to copyright designs as small as 12 pixels by 12 pixels, its competitors AU and J-Phone – which would eventually become SoftBank, one of the biggest telecommunications companies in the world – decided to create their own version to lock in customers.

This meant that sending a message with an emoji from one device would often result in a sentence with a blank space when it arrived on another.

Nonetheless, the use of emoji in Japan continued to grow. And it quickly became a standard part of communicating in the digital age.

The fight for the poop emoji

With the rapid rise of the mobile phone, and thus the rapid rise of texting, by the early 2000s, using emoji had become second nature.

Yet it wasn’t until around 2007 that emoji caught on in the West. And Google was one of the first big Silicon Valley companies to notice and push for the Unicode Consortium to recognise emoji globally.

Looking for ways to make their Gmail product more appealing to countries like Japan, part of that team took on the task of standardising a set of emoji for the company.

While a seemingly straightforward plan, things quickly got complicated.

Although the search giant were keen to bring emoji to a Western audience, they had reservations about the inclusion of one in particular. An emoji that’s now considered a staple.

Yes, internally at Google, a debate erupted over whether or not it should include the poop emoji in their standardised Gmail set for fear of offending its western users.

“It’s basically like getting rid of certain letters of the alphabet,” said Google software engineer, Darren Lewis, who worked on the Gmail emoji project. In an interview with Fast Company he likened emitting it to removing the letter ‘B’ because ‘B’ kind of offends you.

The team pushed hard for its inclusion, going to the head of Gmail, and even doing a large-scale analysis of which emoji were statistically most popular in Asia. The poop emoji was near the top of the list.

And so, in October 2008, when Google debuted its standardised emoji set, the poop emoji was, thankfully, included.

In November of that same year, with the iPhone trying to get a foothold in Japan, iOS released its own standardised emoji set too, poop included, of course.

When the iPhone finally launched in Japan, it was exclusively released by SoftBank, then an also-ran phone network.

Its CEO, Masayoshi Son, had been a longtime admirer and friend of Steve Jobs. So, while other phone networks used to being involved in a phone’s development from early on refused to sell the Apple device due to lack of control, SoftBank took the handset on as a point of difference.

Son used his relationship with Steve Jobs to help Apple tailor some of its software features to the Japanese market. One of his top requests? Adding emoji.

Angela Guzman was an intern in Apple’s design team at the time, and her first big project was to help design its original set of emoji with her mentor, Raymond Sepulveda.

“My first emoji was the engagement ring,” she writes in a blog post on Medium. “I chose it because it had challenging textures like metal and a faceted gem, tricky to render for a beginner.”

The ring, alone, took her a whole day. But pretty soon she was doing three or more.

“I constantly checked the details: the direction of the wood grain, how freckles appeared on apples and eggplants, how leaf veins ran on a hibiscus, how leather was stitched on a football, the details were neverending.”

According to Guzman, some of Apple’s emoji designs have funnier backstories than intended.

For instance, Sepulveda’s ice cream emoji actually uses the swirl from the poop emoji.

And the woman in the red dress dancing was left right until the end because it was the hardest to draw.

Custom emoji

In 2010, Unicode finally approved emoji as an accepted industry-wide language. And in 2011, Apple introduced an entire emoji keyboard for iOS, kicking the West’s use of emoji into fifth gear.

In fact, emoji-use became certifiably mainstream in late 2015, when none other than Kim Kardashian released a custom emoji pack called, of course, Kimoji.

Costing $1.99, the pack skyrocketed up the Apple App Store charts in its first day.

Our increasing appetite for emoji has unleashed a wave of custom packs by celebrities, as well as startups willing and ready to make them.

Part of the reason they’re such an opportunity is the insatiable quest brands and popular figures have to stay relevant parts of the social conversation.

All brands now have to be “social”. But getting people to listen and engage has become incredibly hard. And with more people connecting via private messages that are increasingly photos and videos, rather than broadcasting on Facebook or Twitter, it’s getting even harder for brands to take part.

When people use an emoji it is literally a part of their conversation. And that is their power as a branding tool.

Compare to tagging a brand like Nike in a photo of your new sneakers on Instagram to using an emoji of those very shoes. You’re conversation is now a billboard for that actual model of shoe and for the brand.

Or, say you reference Kim Kardashian crying in a Tweet versus using a Kimoji of her crying. In every way the second tweet which literally features Kim Kardashian crying makes her and her brand part of your conversation.

“It takes you from participating in something to being the something you’re participating in,” says Molly McHugh, a writer for The Ringer, who did a feature on Kim K’s emoji pack.

Emoji continues to develop

While they’ve been around for over 20 years, the world of emoji is still changing, and at a pretty rapid pace.

After coming under fire, Unicode have progressively been rolling out emoji with options for different skin tones, genders and religions. Emoji have become more socially progressive, more visually accurate to the subjects they represent, and even, in some cases, more funny.

And more and more, emoji are able to reflect us, quite literally.

Apple’s newest software allows you to create Memoji, which uses the iPhone camera to create fully customisable emoji that animate live before your eyes.

Asked about his feelings towards the movement he began back in the 90s, Shigetaka Kurita is happy, but sees room for continued development, telling The Verge, “I’d really like to know to what degree they’re used in the same way, and to what degree there’s a local nuance. I think the heart symbol is probably used the same way by everyone, but then there are probably things that only Japanese people would understand, or only Americans would understand…It would be great if we could compare, and have that lead to people starting to use things in the same way.”

In many ways emoji have come full-circle.

Beginning as a way to add emotion to words that couldn’t be communicated through text alone, emoji have become a way to enhance and personalise conversation.

They’re capable of making communicating more fun, more engaging and, increasingly, more commercial.

But more than anything, they’re still capable of transmitting emotion.

So the next time you see that red love heart, think of its origins, and how it started a sprawling visual language that’s still evolving.

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