Laugh, Cry, Poop: A History of the Emoji


23 May 2018

To mark a panel discussion on Digital Language that Disegno is hosting at Arper Bloggers Lounge during Clerkenwell Design Week 2018, Disegno has made Matt Alt's essay 'Laugh, Cry, Poop: A History of the Emoji' – first published in issue #17 – available online. Accompanying the text is a series of emojis created for Disegno by selection of designers who were asked to contribute with an emoji they thought the world would need in 2018.

“In the beginning,” says Shigetaka Kurita, sounding like a digital prophet, “were the pocket pagers.” Kurita, 45, works for Dwango, a leading Japanese video-streaming company. Its offices are located in a gleaming tower that rises directly above Ginza’s storied Kabukiza theatre. The combination of sleek modern skyscraper and gaudily ornamented traditional facade is about as Tokyo as it gets. Far below us, actors are undoubtedly getting ready for their next performance of one of Japan’s most traditional arts. Here in the conference room, Kurita spins the tale of a somewhat more recent one: how he ushered the emoji into all of our lives.

Although English speakers generally pronounce “emoji” with a hard “e” as in “email” or “emotion”, the Japanese word “e” (meaning picture), which combines with “moji” (meaning letter or character) to create the term, is pronounced “eh”. Kurita didn’t invent it. It emerged from the early online culture of “emoticons” – little faces made out of punctuation. Even at that early stage, cultures diverged: Westerners deployed the sideways smiley :-) while the Japanese preferred a horizontally oriented (^_^).

But the story of emoji as we know them today started with pocket pagers – little belt-clipped boxes used to display the numbers of incoming phone calls in the pre-internet era. Once the exclusive purview of well-heeled doctors, CEOs and drug dealers, pocket pagers boomed in the mid-1990s when prices dropped to the point where even teens could afford them. They proved particularly popular with Japanese schoolgirls, who used them to keep in touch with their friends.

“Around 1995,” recalls Kurita, “pagers appeared that could send actual texts in the Japanese alphabet in addition to numbers. They also included two symbols: a heart mark and a telephone mark. At the time, pagers were selling very well among the high-school crowd. These users thought the heart was really cute and started using it a huge amount.” Kurita knew this because he was a sales clerk at a suburban outlet for DoCoMo, a subsidiary of Japan’s largest telecom company, NTT. His customers included everyone from teenyboppers to gangsters wanting cell phones for buddies behind bars. But DoCoMo was quietly working on a new technology, one that is so much a part of our lives today that it’s hard to think of it as a “feature” anymore: the ability to access the internet from a cellular phone. They called the service “i-mode”. When he answered an in-house job posting in 1997, Kurita became one of the i-mode team’s first hires.

Although i-mode users could surf the web, they were limited to simplified sites especially optimised for tiny LCD screens and glacially slow connection speeds. Graphics were out of the question. But little icons like the pager’s heart mark were encoded as a font, allowing them to load quickly. At first, the idea was simply to boost the number of icons for use as design flourishes, including symbols such as little umbrellas and snowflakes and suns for weather forecasts. But Kurita knew young customers would quickly find other uses for them. He proposed including emotional expressions alongside the design elements – little faces ranging from smiles to sorrow. “I started designing the emoji in spring of 1998,” he recalls. “I knew they were important.”

There was only one issue. “I’m not a designer,” he laughs. In fact, he was an economics major. “What I did is what you could call rough design. The actual designer was a man my boss introduced, an architect named Jun Aoki. I’d send my roughs to him and he’d come up with the details.”

Today, Aoki is an acclaimed architect; most famously, his firm re-designed the facade for Louis Vuitton’s flagship Ginza store. Back in 1998, however, the limits of the technology restricted Kurita and Aoki to dot-matrixes of just 12 pixels on a side. Twelve being an even number, there was no centre line and so all the designs had to be subtly offset to one side or the other. Having to work with such tiny canvasses led the pair to fall back on a system of communication that is as good as instinctive to most Japanese people: the symbols and conventions of manga, Japanese comic books. “Sweat beads, the little cloud that appears behind you when you run – things like that,” explains Kurita. This widely known symbology allowed him to transform tiny dot matrixes into instantly recognisable visual punctuation.

Monochromatic and simple, the very first emoji look more like hieroglyphs than the highly polished little cartoons they’ve evolved into today. This was intentional. “Simple was my guiding principle. It was important to me that the emoji had a universality to them, that they made sense for internet users, so that no matter who looked at them, they could use them as icons, without taste coming into play. They were like pictograms or icons to me[...] Tools for communication; the same regardless of who used them.” Because of the rudimentary nature of the earliest emoji, DoCoMo made the momentous decision not to trademark them. “Headquarters discussed it with legal counsel, and the decision was that if you’re talking 12 pixels a side, there isn’t much room for individual expression,” says Kurita. The fact that the term “emoji” had long been in common use was undoubtedly a factor as well.

i-mode proved a huge hit. Seeing the popularity of the little icons, DoCoMo’s competitors quickly jumped into the fray, upping the ante with more complex versions: colour; higher resolution; more variations; animations. An emoji arms race was on. At first, this was limited to Japan, the sole place where emoji- capable phones existed. Not for long, however. When Apple released the first iPhone in Japan in July 2008, it failed to sell until the company hurriedly rigged a work-around to support emoji – a bunch of smileys nearly brought a tech titan to its knees. But its rival Google already knew the importance of the little glyphs, having quietly incorporated them into the local version of Gmail when it launched in Japan in 2007. This worked for Japanese users, but Gmail had to function across platforms anywhere in the world. This meant that emoji couldn’t simply remain a domestic Japanese phenomenon. They needed to be encoded as a worldwide standard. And that, in turn, meant submitting them to a non-profit organisation called the Unicode Consortium for approval.

This seems like a no-brainer, but at the time it was experimental and even a little revolutionary. Today we take it for granted that people using different phones, computers and operating systems can recognise and display the text they send to each other. That is thanks to the encoding standards that Unicode sets.

The first hurdle was convincing it that emoji represented a form of language. “To get anything through Unicode takes forever,” says Eido Inoue, an engineer on the Japanese Gmail team. “There are meetings and committees and more committees. At first, they were like, I don’t care if [emoji] are being used by Japanese teenagers! We’re a serious standards organisation!” More to the point was another sticky wicket: the emoji of a pile of poo. “They were like, you can’t put a poop in as a standard! It’s offensive!”

The debate played out over years, but eventually, Unicode gave in. Their mandate is to encode language as it is actually used “in the wild”, as Unicode president Mark Davis puts it. And with tens of millions of Japanese cell-phone users slinging them in texts, there was plenty of evidence to show that emoji were being used in the real world. In fact, “emoji rewrote the rules on what a ‘letter’ was,” says Inoue. Nowadays, the basic standard for every emoji that appears on every cell phone is vetted and approved by the Consortium. (The precise style is left up to individual companies, which is why emoji’s appearances vary slightly across different phones and operating systems.)

So the way was paved for emoji to be unleashed on the world stage. Their inclusion as part of Apple’s iOS5 update in 2011 gave some seventy million potential users access to the little icons. Their rise after that was swift. In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries picked an emoji for its Word of the Year – “tears of joy” rather than the smiling pile of poo, for better or for worse. “It’s proof that emoji are being used as a form of writing around the world,” says Kurita. “It makes me very happy.”

These days, it is hard to imagine a world in which emoji aren’t part of our online communications. Although they were created in Japan, they are now part of the global lexicon – digital citizens of a complex world. This fact has spurred campaigns to diversify the glyphs from little monochromatic faces into a rainbow of skin tones and a variety of orientations to match the lives of millions of users around the globe. Occasionally these efforts have sparked controversy. “Apple’s new diverse emoji are even more problematic than before,” lamented a 2015 Washington Post editorial, explaining that new dark-skinned emoji were now being used to adorn racist screeds on social media. Meanwhile, that same year, the Russian government launched a formal investigation into Apple for violating the country’s notorious anti-gay laws. The culprit: a handful of same-sex emoji couples on its phones. Amidst a flurry of 😤 on social media, they backed down in early 2016.

It’s tempting to ascribe all this commotion to the little icons themselves; to claim that they are somehow responsible for uniting us, for pitting us against one another, even on occasion for provoking superpowers. As their creator Kurita puts it, “wherever you go, whenever there’s text on a screen, there’s always going to be a need for an emotional component.” The wildly divergent reactions these seemingly inessential little designs stimulate is proof of a bigger truth: that a legion of smiley faces and grinning piles of poo can serve as a conduit for much weightier interactions.

Words Matt Alt.

RUBBISH EMOJI by Committee

"Reasons why this is an emoji for 2018:
a) It refers to the anthropocene age and the colossal material waste issues we have as a result of our consumer culture.
b) It represents a real word and can therefore be used as a shorthand.
c) In an age of fake news; poor political performance; post-post-modern cultural confusion; unclear foreign policies; socially divided societies; rows over devolution, independence and supranational governance and hypersensitive identity politics, we think it might be an emblem that could come in handy surprisingly often!
d) It is an incredibly succinct way to start or end a text message argument. In fact, we can’t believe it isn’t there already."


"A needle and thread is something I use on a daily basis, but at the same time it could be used as a symbol to close something or fix something: a problem or a broken friendship."

NOPEMOJI by Pentagram (Jody Hudson-Powell, Luke Powell and team)

"Most of us know the original Broken Image, if not the pin-prick of frustration it invokes. Technically, it represents the known presence of missing information: code typos, long-gone file hosts, unfinished loading. To the user, the knowledge of this gap is little consolation. The image is lost – conformed to three coloured shapes on a skeuomorphic torn page. Our prolonged familiarity with the Broken Image has made it a suitable candidate for more meta (mis)uses. Its symbolic meaning was earned through decades of global presence, just like the faces and flags in our smartphones. Perhaps it should join them. As an emoji, the Broken Image becomes doubly anachronistic. Once an automatic symptom of a specific error, it now carries abstract meaning. This could be: a lack of emotion; something vague and non-communicable; an ironic expression of the desire to stop conversing through emojis; a protest against the Silicon Valley-influenced process of approval emojis are subjected to. Against the background of an increasingly tech-industry-weary world, the awareness of its flaws is increasingly encouraged, sought after, and articulated. The awareness that things need fixing, whether they are apps or socio-political structures, is widespread and still growing – a good impetus for an emoji."

TWO-FACE EMOJI, OR COVERING DOUBTS WITH VIOLENCE by Daniel Brown and Karolina Wisniewska

"A quintessential emoji for our time, Two-Face expresses the belief that a person is saying one thing while thinking another. It could be a case of not practicing what one preaches, knowingly posting fake news, or skewed statistics of one’s data – the scourge of modern media. The postmodern society we live in creates intolerable level of doubt. There is a continuous rise in the number of choices that we are able and expected to make, both on a personal and a societal level, and an increase of information that we have to process and react to. Very often we lack the time, knowledge or skills to deal with all these questions and doubts. We respond to them with angry and unambiguous statements, covering our uncertainty and sense of losing control with violence."


"Architects get in a huff and a puff about what the “correct” way of designing is, fighting and squabbling, and endlessly condemning each other’s buildings in a ceaseless Red Wedding of bitchy, self-inflicted architectural carnivorousness. Their buildings, however, are just wonderful. Their buildings love each other. In fact, it is this very love between buildings that are really, really different from one another that makes for fabulous cities. They sit in the streets, bringing joy, interest, and – hopefully – watertight shelter, to zillions of people every day. They cluster and chitchat, block by block, plot by plot, next to each other, creating a bubbly mix that makes a place feel real and alive, like a chaotic family get-together where everyone is shouting, but it’s still joyous and bursting with love."

LIFE SAVER EMOJI by Fearlessly Frank (Daniel Eatock and William Richardson)

"There are a lot of reasons why we might need a Life Saver emoji. For example, there is the increasing frequency of floods, storms and other natural disasters. We desperately need an icon for 'Help, I am drowning' – both in a metaphorical and literal sense."


"There are already so many emojis out there and it seems there is one for everything imaginable. So we decided to supply an emoji that doesn’t have an expression at all. This way, it represents no emoji as well as all emojis at once. Reduced to the minimum, the lack of facial expression points at the aesthetic base of today’s most popular emojis. Which is an interest of this journal, isn’t it?"

STOP EMOJI by Fernando and Humberto Campana

"Appalled by the 2015 environmental disaster in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, when a dam collapsed at the Samarco iron ore and released millions of tonnes of thick sludge, we collaborated with the Brazilian coating company Divina Terra to create a cobogó brick, a traditional ceramic perforated tile. Its design represents the shape of a hand, a symbolic response to the tragedy caused in the state. For the emoji, we have translated this project into an image that can be virtually spread to all people who would also like to make a signal to stop something that shouldn’t happen, especially to the environment."

MATRIX EMOJI by Maiko Takeda

"The events of 2017 have showed how easily our societies can be manipulated and divided by the information we are exposed to. Whether consciously or not, we tend to reassure ourselves by hearing what we want to believe, while we ignore stories and voices that we do not want to hear. Heading towards 2018, the scene in the 1999 film The Matrix in which the main character Neo has to decide whether to swallow a red pill to see “the truth”, or a blue one to maintain the illusion, has become more relevant than ever. With every decision we make we are steering our future world. Will we see through the choices and make the right decisions?"


"In so many aspects of life today we seem to be making mistakes because we take action with too little consideration of the consequences. Whether talking about pollution, global warming, electing rogue leaders or Brexit this visualisation of the popular idiom 'Shooting yourself in the foot' seems likely to be useful in 2018."

FAT PIGS EMOJI by El Ultimo Grito

"It is not really a 'new' emoji but a sequence of emojis as narrative. It is intended to be used in things like Brexit – another "brilliant" idea from the "boys in the club". Rather than fat cats, we've created fat pigs – the joys of working within limited image sets."

TOTAL PERSPECTIVE VORTEX EMOJI by Universal Design Studio. (Cathrin Walczyk)

"In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Trin Tragula invents the Total Perspective Vortex in order to torture his wife who forever nags him to 'have some sense of proportion. To quote Adams: "When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there's a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, 'You are here. Nobody survives the shock of being placed in the TPV because, in Adam’s words, 'In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion. The TPV emoji could be used to comment on someone freaking out about an issue (of any given scale), to express amazement and/or horror at man’s insignificance in the universe, or simply as a reply to the question of one’s whereabouts."

DEMOJIS by Karl Anders studio

"We look back over another eventful year. There was the American climate treaty disaster, the G20 summit in our hometown Hamburg and the Catalan separation — just to mention a few. But this year was also a year of protest and voices. Our voices. We went out to the streets again to proclaim our opinions. That’s why we made a series of so called Demojis – that stand for demonstration and protest."


"Designers tend to sit way too much in front of the computer. At the same time we have this training trend that has gone so far that people tend to walk around in active-wear no matter what they do. We think that amid all these health trends, diets, training schedules, Instagram documentations of a perfect life and so on, it's time to also be fine with being a chubby and just celebrate it. So we decided to make a chubby and happy emoji. Be fat, happy and perfect!"

SUPER EMOJI by Fontsmith

"We all dream of being superheroes, of flying into the bright future from a not-that-bright present. It's true, the world needs saving. The good news is that we just need a cape. It should be the same one for everybody because we all are travelling together through space on this mothership called Earth. Think about this: when you fly above the clouds there are no countries, races, or genders. We must stop hoisting different capes, look forward with empathy, and go ahead with determination. That's what a superhero would do. Fontsmith presents the global cape for the superemoji, and hopes that 2018 is full of confidence, smiles, and rock 'n' roll!"


"We created the emoji in the spirit of something we thought 2018 needed to recapture: ‘Make love, not war’. And we thought if Trump and Kim Jong Un could do that, anybody could."