Graphic Design

Crying with Laughter: Rise of the Emoji

man with an emoji for a head

In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries announced that their word of the year was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji. The announcement was deplored by prescriptivist linguistic types who thought the ‘word of the year’ was a silly idea anyway, but who had even more reason to be annoyed in the year when the word of the year was not a word but a pictograph. The ‘face with tears of joy’ is a popular example of the phenomenon that had begun to liven up the instant messenger inboxes of the world’s mobile phones: the now ubiquitous emoji.

Not Emoticons

Half a generation earlier, in the late 1990s, the population of the UK was busy playing snake and getting to grips with emoticons on their Nokia 3310s. Emoticons are the ways of expressing emotion pictorially through the combination of punctuation marks and keyboard characters. {;-P) In Japan, at the same time, the Emoji was already in development. Although the words ‘emoji’ and ‘emoticon’ sound similar and serve a similar purpose, they have completely different etymological roots. ‘Emoticon’ is a (clumsy) portmanteau of the words ‘emotion’ and ‘icon’. Emoji comes from the Japanese for “picture-character/letter”.

12 pixels by 12 pixels

The original 176 emojis were the responsibility of one man: Shigetaka Kurita. He came up with the idea of using pictorial representations that would be simpler to enter than the complex Japanese kaomoji (their version of emoticons) as the new pictographs could simply be selected from a grid. The original set of emojis were only 12x12 pixels in size. The designs are considered so iconic that, in 2016, they were added to the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. Paul Galloway, the museum’s design collection specialist, said at the time:

“Emoji tap into a long tradition of expressive visual language. Images and patterns have been incorporated within text since antiquity. From ancient examples to, more recently, the work of creative typesetters, these early specimens functioned as a means of augmenting both the expressive content of the text and the overall aesthetic quality of the printed page.”

Symbols vs Images

The creator of the original emoji set had them more in mind as symbols than images. It’s an insightful distinction. Images directly depict an item from the phenomenal world. Symbols have more nuance and a greater scope for personal interpretations. In an interview with online tech magazine The Verge, Kurita wonders how the descendants of his symbols are interpreted in different countries:

“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.”

The modern emojis have become more pictorial – making less room for playful ambiguity. This is countered by simply increasing the number of symbols. According to the emojipedia there are currently 2,823 emojis in the Unicode standard.

Pictographs aren’t a new idea – our own alphabet started out as pictorial representations of real world items. The symbols later became abstracted and attached to particular onset sounds. For two-and-a-half Millennia, the alphabet has been our go-to system for transcribing oral language. Are we on the cusp of change? Ask the compilers of the Oxford Dictionary. Or better still: the 800 authors of Emoji Dick – a translation into emoji of the 10,000 sentences that make up Herman Melville’s classic tale of humanity’s weakness in the face of nature.

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