Books

On the Origin of Emoji

A new book published by Prestel explores the history of emoji and its rise as a global communication phenomenon.

From 'The Story of Emoji' by Gavin Lucas, published by Prestel (all photos of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)
From ‘The Story of Emoji’ by Gavin Lucas, published by Prestel (all photos of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)

A new book published by Prestel explores the history of emoji and its rise as a global communication phenomenon. Penned by UK-based writer Gavin Lucas, The Story of Emoji provides an overview of the evolution of visual symbols and simply celebrates the presence of emoji in today’s culture — what Lucas considers “the first collection of symbols and icons to be widely usable using the keyboards of mobile communication devices.”

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Cover of ‘The Story of Emoji’ by Gavin Lucas, published by Prestel (click to enlarge)

No, it’s not all written in emoji, although the majority of its nearly 200 pages is devoted to images, as one may expect. These illustrate a number of projects that have emerged in recent years that engage with emoji, for which Lucas has provided short and basic descriptions. Among his picks are design efforts, such as stores that sell emoji pins, pillows, and apparel; but also more meaningful public projects such as advertisements and campaigns. The book highlights, for instance, the World Wildlife Fund’s 2015 #EndangeredEmoji, which used animal emoji to raise awareness of endangered animals and encouraged participants to donate money to its cause. The book also features +rehabstudio’s Politicons initiative, which used emoji portraits of British politicians to get voters involved in the UK’s 2015 general election. Other projects presented are simply playful, such as Takakura Kazuki’s website emoji.ink, which lets you paint on your browser page using any emoji character as your ink; designer Hyo Hong’s Cindy Sherman emojis; and Fred Benenson’s Emoji Dick — a copy of which the US Library of Congress acquired in 2013.

The most engaging sections of the book, though, involve the actual text. Lucas provides a brief history of emoji’s predecessors, all the way from ornamental characters in the hand-executed typesetting of early-16th-century printed books to the many symbols of digital type. His journey touches upon the evolution of the dingbat and the emergence of emoticons, the punctuation-based kaomoji, ASCII art, and even expressive punctuation such as the ironieteken — conceived to denote ironic statements — and late 16th-century English printer Henry Denham’s proposed percontation point — to mark rhetorical questions. He also does not neglect discussing the variations of emoji that exist today on various operating systems that may be incompatible and therefore lead to communication failures. On a similar note, he describes how some symbols lose their meaning because they were originally made for the Japanese: the red, devilish face of a man with a large nose, for instance, is known in Japan as a tengu mask and represents conceit; the face with a single tear does not depict a cryer but a sleeper — in Japan, a snot bubble emerging from a nose is apparently a similar visual cue to a slew of “Zzz”s.

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From ‘The Story of Emoji’ by Gavin Lucas, published by Prestel

Emoji’s rise from a tool first distributed by one Japanese mobile phone provider in 1999 to a global phenomenon (thanks to Apple’s iOS5 that integrated the keyboard) is chronicled in a short but fascinating essay by Jeff Blagdon. Blagdon describes the first set of characters ever, designed by Shigetaka Kurita and comprised of 176 very pixelated characters, and lends some insight into why their creation was necessary. As new technologies of the time such as email and pagers became more widely used, people in Japan, he writes, found it difficult to adapt to these new modes of communication:

In Japanese culture, personal letters are traditionally long and verbose, full of seasonal greetings and honorific expressions that convey the sender’s goodwill to the recipient. The shorter, more casual nature of email was at odds with this tradition. Furthermore, familiar, longer-form letters gave people important contextual information in the same way that face-to-face interactions and phone conversations allow for facial expressions and vocal intonation to play an important part of conveying meaning. The absence of all of these cues in emails and texts meant that the promise of digital communication – being able to stay in closer touch with people much more easily – was being offset by an accompanying increase in miscommunication.

Kurita, therefore, designed the original emoji set as a solution to convey human emotion in single images. The Story of Emoji also features an interview with him that expands on his groundbreaking conceit and also offers some fun tidbits — like the fact that he did create a poop emoji but chose to not include it in his final character set.

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Emoji drawings by Takakura Kazuki

The Story of Emoji also looks towards the character set’s future, asking artists and designers to illustrate emoji they wish existed. Of course, a bacon emoji arrives courtesy of Liza Nelson; Crispin Finn offers a touch of humor with his random suggestions that include a fan and a spade. My personal favorites are Mr. Bingo‘s “Fuck You,” which features the words on toast, and a lobster claw by Ali Graham. As Lucas shows in his selection of emoji-based projects, emoji-fever is far from dying down and those little images will likely continue to evolve. Perhaps one day soon we will finally receive the update that gifts us with that bacon emoji.

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From ‘The Story of Emoji’ by Gavin Lucas, published by Prestel
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Imagined emojis by Mr. Bingo and Friso Blankevoort
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Imagined emojis by Crispin Finn

The Story of Emoji by Gavin Lucas, out from Prestel, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. 

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