A Brief History of Emojis

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Emojis have become a normal part of life. They’re everywhere now, but once emojis were just a crazy idea that may never come to fruition had it not been for a bit of determination and belief.

When Shigetaka Kurita thought up the emoji, it was a simplistic 12×12 pixel image in a single colour. Even though his idea was initially rejected by big communications companies with greater resources, Kurita pursued his idea and set about designing the emojis with his small team at Docomo even though he had no design experience.

And thank goodness he did. Emojis have changed the way we communicate.

A Brief History of Emojis Infographic


The Magic of Unicode

Emojis were originally created using Shift JIS, a Japanese character encoding programme only available to people in Japan.

Every 2 byte code corresponded with a unique image character so that when the code was used, that particular character would replace the code.

Using code like this meant that the emojis could be added to a grid-like keyboard like any other letter or character. You can revel in the joys of this advantage on smart phones to this day because Unicode adopted emoji.

Unicode is a computing industry standard that essentially allows codes to be translated between different carriers. This means that whichever format you send your emoji in, as long as it is recognised by Unicode, it will be made visible in format of the receiver.

When Unicode adopted emoji, it enabled users to send and receive emojis across the world.

New Emoji Grid

Image from unicode.org


In 2011, iOS 5 was released and, with Unicode in place, emojis made their international debut. Suddenly smiley faces and hearts were cropping up all over the internet.

Though there were 114 characters before the release of Unicode 6.0 the additional 608 emoji codes that were added in 2011 took the world by storm.

There are currently 1,281 character or character sequences recommended as emoji on Unicode 8.0, not including combinations of emoji modifiers or joiner sequences.

How Emojis are Used

In the last 5 years, emojis have become a consistent part of our written language online.

When designing his original set of emojis, Kurita wanted each picture to be interpreted in numerous ways to allow people more freedom of expression. The aim was to use emojis to add a form of intonation to written text in a similar way to using body language or verbal cues.

In Japan, “If someone says Wakarimashita you don’t don’t know whether it’s a kind of warm, soft, ‘I understand’ or a ‘yeah, I get it’ kind of cool, negative feeling,” says Kurita.

According to the Unicode website, ‘Emoji aren’t really a “language” […] But in social media, people like to use them to add color and whimsy to their messages, and to help make up for the lack of gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

“They also add a “useful ambiguity” to messages, allowing the writer to convey many different possible concepts at the same time.” The aubergine emoji is a great example of this.

This ambiguity brings a definite element of fun to tweets, as well as creating innovative ways of using language as Kirsten Dunst demonstrated in her tweet.

Kirsten Dunst Tweet

Image from http://stats.seandolinar.com/

Even Oxford Dictionaries has heralded the ‘Tears of Joy’ emoji as their word of the year. It was chosen ‘as the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015’.

Oxford Dictioary tweet

Image from @OxfordWords

By far the most popular emojis are of smiling faces with ‘Tears of Joy’ making up 20% of emoji use in the UK in 2015. Swiftkey made a pie chart showing the usage of different categories of emojis. And if you still don’t believe how frequently emojis are used, you can see them being used on Twitter in real time.

Pie Chart showing Emoji use

Image from https://blog.swiftkey.com


It is natural that many people use faces to modify their language and provide facial expressions to indicate their tenor, but it is interesting that emojis can also tell stories in their own right.

Possibly the most ambitious project with this use of emojis is Emoji Dick, a rewriting of the classic Moby Dick by data engineer Fred Benenson.

He said, “I felt I could confront a lot of our shared anxieties about the future of human expression by forcing a great work of literature through such a strange new filter.”

Emoji Dick

Image from Library of Congress Blog

With emojis being experimented with and celebrated in so many ways it is unsurprising that they are now being used for content marketing purposes too.

Content Marketing with Emojis


MailChimp added support for emojis in 2015 and by May they had already created an amazing map showing how emojis are used together in email subject lines. In the map the emojis closest together are used together most frequently. The bigger the emoji, the more popular it is.

Map of Emoji relationships

Image from MailChimp

They found that 31% of subject lines containing emojis didn’t stop at just one emoji but used multiple characters. With their map, MailChimp have shown that emojis tend to be used together with other emojis of the same type.

There are some interesting exceptions here, though, including the sunglasses smiley face who pops up in the middle of the map rather than with the other smiley faces. The fruit has also been separated off from the rest of the food which the MailChimp team suggests is because the fruit is being used for ‘other purposes’.

MailChimp sees emojis as a good way of giving information in a compact way, an especially important factor with subject lines and the increase of mail being opened on smaller smartphone screens.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

To publicise the upcoming Star Wars film, Twitter Movie Partnerships created three temporary emojis so that ‘Twitter users will have even more ways to express their the passion’.

Star Wars Twitter Emoji

Image from Twitter

Twitter was a hive of activity in the week preceding the opening night. ‘Star Wars’ was mentioned 6.5 million times in that week, with 2.4 million of those tweets appearing in the final 24 hours.

Disney were also smart with their emoji use on the opening day, using the Promoted Trend feature to their advantage by swapping though their various new emojis every hour on the hour.

Star Wars Emojis

Image from adweek.com

Facebook Emoji Easter Eggs

Though the code for emoji has been used for pictures only, Facebook have gone a step further and used the emoji as a door to a secret game hidden in Facebook Messenger.

All you have to do is send the basketball emoji to a friend in messenger and then click the little picture. The game then appears and you are challenged to put as many basketballs through the hoop as possible. Your high score then gets automatically posted in the conversation and your friend is challenged to beat you.

It’s addictive to say the least.

Facebook Basketball game

Image from Digital Spy

The game was produced to celebrate college basketball’s March Madness tournament but it also shows how easily emojis can be manipulated to do other, more interesting things. Keeping the game ‘secret’ also gave the gamers who found it and shared it a sense of being in the know.

Domino’s Emoji Pizza Order

Creating a game with an emoji is one thing, but what if the emoji itself can be used as a quick way to get potential clients to convert? This is the question Domino’s asked themselves before they came up with the idea ‘tweet – for – pizza’.

Domino’s is not just a pizza giant, it is also something of a tech giant. The company has around 250 technology employees and no wonder: 7 out of every 10 orders placed at Domino’s are placed online. It seems that the internet has consumed the pizza business.

In May 2015, Domino’s rolled out their ‘tweet – for – pizza’ feature on twitter in the USA. Not an experiment, this feature was seen as the next logical move and Domino’s were sure that this was the future of takeaway ordering.

The idea is that customers will create a Domino’s Pizza profile and an Easy Order Account, that they will then link to their twitter account. To order their favourite pizza, all Domino’s customers have to do is tweet the pizza emoji to Dominoes. Their favourite pizza will then be cooked and dispatched to their address.


Image from @dominos

Though not all potential customers were happy with the service, as a marketing idea, the pizza emoji is a pretty good one. Using the emoji not only reduces ordering to a mere five second transaction, it also creates an unavoidable association with the emoji itself. Now the pizza is not just any pizza but the Domino’s pizza.

The Future of Emoji

It is clear that in the five years since emojis went international, they have been put to more and more imaginative uses.

Beginning as a small pictogram left open to interpretation, the use of emojis has developed, moving through marketing campaigns, hidden games and has now been utilised as a way to generate sales.

It will be fascinating to see how far the emoji can go.

Where do you think the emoji will go next? Let us know in the comments below!

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About Hannah Field

Hannah is the newest member of the Content Team. She is a passionate fan of modernist literature and can usually be found curled up with a cat and a book, a steaming mug of tea within reach. Though she tolerates living on land, Hannah feels most at home underwater SCUBA diving, hoping to see turtles.

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