35,000 years ago humans started drawing symbols with the purpose of communication – think of cave paintings, petroglyphs and hieroglyphs. Now we have the fingers crossed, facepalm, selfie and the bacon emoji. What can we say? (ツ)
Before we explain how emojis came to be, it’s good to clarify what exactly an emoji is, as they’re frequently confused with their emoticon counterparts.
Emojis are images or symbols (hint: little, yellow faces) that you see on your social feeds, news articles and so on. Emoticons, on the other hand, are simple expressions and faces created with characters from your keyboard. Capiche? :-)
Writing on a mobile phone has always been an elaborate process. But it can get even more complicated if you’re trying to express what you are feeling through text (not to mention distracting and potentially dangerous), and this is where emojis started – a simple solution to a common problem.
By the end of the 20th century in Japan, a lot of mobile phone users were obsessed with sending images via message to one another, and mobile phone carriers started to notice the trend. Instead of ignoring it, they came up with a set of symbols that could easily be sent via text message. For the operating system, it is still a text character that is rendered as an image on the screen.
Emojis are an extraordinary design solution, so extraordinary in fact that MoMA recently acquired the original set of emojis designed by Shigetaka Kurita for NTT DoCoMo (the predominant mobile phone operator in Japan). As a MoMA’s collection specialist put it, emojis are “humble masterpieces of design” which “planted the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language”, adding that “emojis demonstrate the powerful capacity for design to alter human behaviour”.
Lost in translation
We all know that an image can be worth a thousand words, but figuring out exactly its meaning is where things can start to get a bit messy. Don’t believe it? Just check emojipedia – yes, it’s an emoji encyclopedia – and see if the emojis actually mean what you think they do.
How much of an issue is this? Japan will be holding the next summer Olympics and they’re worried that their ♨️ emoji will confuse Westerners and leave them looking for hot food. As a result, they’re reviewing 90 emojis and other symbols that are widely used in Japan. This means that software companies will have roughly 4 years to update their emoji interpretations of it.
The emoji advantage
Like it or not, emojis are universal. So, it was only natural when brands jumped in and started using emojis too. From creative marketing campaigns to building their own emoji sets, we’ve seen it all. It appears that brands and emojis are going to be ? for quite a long time.
Research shows that when brands use them appropriately, it’s an extremely effective way to engage with their audience, improving conversions and helping you speak to your customers in a language they understand and can relate to; especially to younger audiences that are increasingly more difficult to reach.
Emojis have the power to add emotion to what we’re trying to say, making it easier to describe what we struggle to say with our own words.
If you put aside some minor differences between cultures and operating systems, the meaning of most emojis is pretty much universal, no matter what language you speak.
But, as universal as they are, there’s one aspect of emojis that is not so universal after all. Emojis should be all-embracing and all-inclusive, symbolising everyone. No matter gender, race or your sexual orientation. This is just a small part of a much bigger problem that the tech world is facing since the dotcom boom. Software companies are not diverse enough, and there is not enough variety of people with a seat at the table in software companies.
Of course it won’t be easy to represent all the possible combinations of people on our planet, but tech companies can’t claim that they’re making an effort to improve inclusion, while only representing some aspects of diversity.
So, what next?
We believe that emojis are just getting started and they won’t be slowing down anytime soon. We will see the addition of more and more emojis – from hijabs to yoga poses. We will also see an ever-increasing number of brands making use of them as they try to connect with their younger audiences.
But the future of emojis might hold other hidden secrets, maybe they can help people that suffer with things like autism or Asperger’s, or even people that suffer with mental health issues.
We don’t really know what the future holds for emojis, but they might even become the future of international communication. A universal language that can make it easy for people from all over the world to communicate in a simple but more effective way.