How the emoji became one of the most powerful tools of modern communication

Paul Galloway of the Museum of Modern Art takes us back to the emoji's humble beginnings.
Emoji (original set of 176), released by DoMoCo in 1999. (Shigetaka Kurita, © 2016 NTT DOCOMO)

Originally published on Dec. 6, 2016

"There were only five faces, but there's three different emoji dealing with gift giving," says Paul Galloway, the collection specialist for the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. Emoji were created by Shigetaka Kurita for NTT DoCoMo, one of Japan's largest telecom companies. Embedded in the origins of emoji is the Japanese culture which honours the art of gift giving. "This idea of gift giving is something that is baked into it," explains Galloway and that's why we have a handful of icons like ribbons, a wrapped present and birthday candles to represent gifts.

Emoji creator Kurita was originally working on a software platform called i-mode which was meant to make the cell phone interface more user-friendly, especially when browsing the Internet. "They had green screens and very, very low resolutions," says Galloway of '90s cell phones. Kurita's team created the emoji to add visual appeal, but also to facilitate communication.

"One of things I find so amazing about these is that you're working with an extremely limited palette, twelve pixels by twelve pixels," says Galloway. At first they only came in black and white, eventually adding a small range of colours. Kurita was able to create powerful images that let us express ourselves beyond the words we type.

Shigetaka Kurita's original emoji released by DoMoCo in 1999. (Shigetaka Kurita, © 2016 NTT DOCOMO)

Although DoCoMo released emoji in 1999, "if you were on a DoCoMo phone and somebody else was on a SoftBank phone, your emoji didn't send to theirs," says Galloway and this likely hindered their adoption abroad. It was only after Unicode codified all emoji in 2010 that these icons could be properly received by any recipient regardless of the phone model or operating system. But a Google emoji still looks different from an Apple emoji and that's because as long as the design adheres to the Unicode standard, creators can take their own artistic license.

Almost all of Kurita's original designs are still being used today, like the standard smiley face and surprised face with "X"s for eyes and a big open mouth. "Emoji let us be human in a space that is very inhuman," says Galloway. "I like to think about art as being a tool for human communication when communication fails," and he thinks emoji are doing just that.


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