A presentation on emoji history.
Presented at DurasnoConf in Durazno, Uruguay.
Part of the deck includes GIFs, you can see them in this tweet thread.
(This is a slides from my talk I gave at DuraznoConf in Durazno, Uruguay. October 4th 2018)
(Hand drawn illustrations are by me @kosamari, and each pictures used have credit at the bottom)
Hello Durazno() Conf !
I’m Mariko, you can ﬁnd me as @kosamari on twitter.
I’m a web developer form NYC working with team that builds Google Chrome.
Say hi or send me questions!
I usually write things like how does browser work & how to make compiler. With …
… hand drawn illustrations like these.
Because I really like learning about complex topics and explaining in a simple way.
… so of-cause my compiler post has hand drawn pictures too :)
Today, I want to tell you about emoji!
Where it started, and how it evolved to be what it is now.
But why? It’s a mix of many reasons why I’m interested in Emoji.
I studied communication in university. I’m fascinated by how people comunicate especially using
computer technologies and the internet.
I also love history. Especially computing history. I can get lost in reading old mailing list archive or
I love discovering cause and eﬀects in history.
Perhaps that’s the reason why I ended up in web development. I build tools for communication, by
dealing with cause and eﬀects everyday in code.
So, emoji - Even though it might look like it comes from “emoticons”… it is actually a Japanese word.
…which literally translates to picture letters.
So how did emoji start?
If you google “ﬁrst emoji” you will ﬁnd this one. MoMA actually acquired original emoji to their
This “original” emoji set is from i-mode - a Japanese mobile web network started in 1999
So in 1999, you could buy a phone that look like this, which had a browser and email client.
You could select emoji in your text message or if you are web developer, you could use emoji on your
If you go to Computer History Museum in Mountain View, they describe i-mode as “ﬁrst popular
system for mobile Web access”
Even thought i-mode was the ﬁrst one that included a set of emoji. Emoji was used in communication
device already. This Japanese version of iPhone (DP-211SW) had touch pad, supported Kanji
characters, and emoji (spot the !).
Also, pager was really popular device, from business person to high school girls. If you dial 88, certain
pagers displayed — which was very popular.
So in 1997, NTT DoCoMo starts i-mode project. 2 years before it’s release.
To research for this new mobile web service, a project member was sent to California to try AT&T’s
PocketNet service, which had mobile web access.
Shigetaka Kurita - who was testing Pocket Net would send email from the PocketNet phone on a train
in SanFrancisco, make international phone call to the oﬃce in Tokyo and ask if they received it.
While using PocketNet, like looking up weather, Kurita noticed that reading weather in text was rather
dry… and wondered if he can use weather icons like they do in TV weather forecast.
Kurita comes back home and pitch the emoji idea to phone device manufacturer.
Manufacturer says “Fine, we’ll do it, but you have to tell us exactly what you want (in bitmap art)”
So Kurita was tasked to design emoji set.
But why emoji needed to be text and displayed as font? Why not image?
Because back then i-mode had to have separate sockets - one for text and one for image, so that was
not only slow to download but also used lot more data.
Also, i-mode only supported GIF for image format. Back in late 1990s, patent of GIF was still not clear
so they wanted to stay out of potential trouble.
If icons are delivered as text (or code point) then they can save connection and data because it is
delivered as text and pictogram is already installed in the phone.
So at the end of the design process, this was the ﬁrst emoji set.
It has weather icons just like Kurita imagined while using PocketNet.
Since they were designing information portal, Rock Paper Scissors were added for potential game use.
Kurita says visualizing “location service” was diﬃcult task but ended up with “a pin” which you can
see later in services like Google Maps.
Emoticons were added for expressive communication.
And 4 diﬀerent kinds of hearts !
Kurita worked as sales person for pager (pocket bell) and experienced 1st hand some customers turn
away from device because it didn’t support —. So this time, he made sure there were hearts included.
Interesting one is Cars, original set had 2 diﬀerent types of car.
Back then Kurita was really into snowboarding so regular town car and SUV for outdoor was diﬀerent
thing for him :)
You might notice there is no religion or race/gender related icons in the original set.
Kurita says “I purposefully did not include emoji related to religion, country, race, or gender to avoid
future conﬂicts”. Perhaps because it was done in conservative place (NTT - DoCoMo’s parent
company was THE biggest phone company which used to be owned by government). Perhaps it was
great vision in designing features that has never existed before.
While I was researching, 2 resources came up often as inspirations for emoji.
1st is Tokyo Olympic 1964. This was the ﬁrst Olympic game hosted in Asia. Signs written in Japanese
does not even use alphabets, so Olympic organizers needed to come up a way to communicate with
They used pictogram for that. Each sports had its own pictogram (this became Olympic tradition, every
Olympic game since then has their own pictograms.)
Not only for type of sports, they also deﬁned informational icons like bathroom sign and restaurant/
cafe signs. This is a news paper reporting the design eﬀort back in 1064.
At the end of design process, designers abandoned their copyright & released pictograms they
designed as public domain so that it can be used everywhere.
So in original emoji, you see trace of that universal signs.
Another inspiration is Japanese comic book (or Manga).
Manga has it’s own visual idioms to communicate emotions. This might not look anything to you, but
to me who grew up reading manga and immersed in this visual communication, I can see 3 diﬀerent
scene/emotions just by adding small visual elements.
(surprised, anxious (cold sweat), sad/devastated (shadow))
You can see those visual idioms in the original emoji set
So when I read text like this, as Japanese who is trained in those visual idiom, I read the text in much
more comical/expressive way than plain text.
In a way, I think emoji is still under used for its original purpose.
This is a “text only” NPR site created in response to hurricane.
There are no image/video/ads so that people can read news even in the unreliable connection.
I think this is a exactly the situation emoji can shine!
Emoji can add more visual ﬂare without adding any more data (because emoji fonts are already
installed in the device). Plus, don’t you think it’d be nice to have more visual diﬀerentiator when you are
in the stressful mental state, in stead of trying to parse wall of text?
Let’s look at what happened after original emoji was introduced.
Other phone companies followed DoCoMo’s success and provided their own emoji for their service.
In fact, emoji became a competitive aspects of phone service.
Companies advertised “we have more emoji!” Or “our emoji animates!”. In result, a lot more emoji
were introduced to the market.
So let’s look at how emoji was handled on encoding level.
In many encoding system our phone or computers turn data they received into a reference (like code
points) and use that to look up letters.
ASCII or Central European encoding has been used by languages that use alphabets, for Japanese we
have one called Shift-JIS that supports a lot more characters that we use in Japanese.
Shift-JIS also have empty space left for application speciﬁc use, so emoji used this space.
Things to note here is that each phone company deﬁned their own emoji system. There were no
So back in 2000 if you send emoji from Phone company A to B, emoji would turn into ˤ(geta). In
modern days it might be □(tofu).
Finally in 2006, three major phone companies in Japan made it possible to use emoji interchangeably.
It was done as conversion table system.
And unfortunate bug (like sending music note emoji turn into poop) occurred.
Conversation table system is not really optimal, each company has to maintain table and if new
company comes into market, they have to create new table again.
Better approach may be having single table to look up to (this will come in later!)
To recap, emoji was release to public in 1999, gained popularity in Japan in 2000s.
Next comes globalization phase.
While emoji mature in Japanese market, it started gaining adoption outside of Japan.
Gmail supported emoji input in 2008.
This is also the time Google was trying to break into Japanese market with gmail. To get adoption in
Japan as communication service, emoji support was a kay.
iPhone ﬁrst supported emoji only in Japanese market with iOS 2.2.
It is rumored Masayoshi Son, CEO of Softbank which had exclusive rights to sell iPhone in Japan,
asked Steve Jobs to support emoji in iPhone in order to sell them in Japan.
With those activities happening, Google and Apple delegations decides to propose emoji to Unicode.
Unicode is a project to document every letters for every language in one place.
Systems that support Unicode can reference one master source. (no more encoding diﬀerences).
Here is a screen shot from the proposal.
Of-cause, some people questioned if emoji really need to be included in Unicode.
Rationale for including emoji in Unicode was
2. Already done same for ARIB
ARIB symbols are Japanese broad cast speciﬁc symbols which are brought into Unicode before emoji.
When you read mailing list discussion from back then, you see discussion like “do you really need 4
diﬀerent kind of books?” “Do you really want to include these racial stereotype emoji?” “why don’t my
country have emoji ﬂag?”.
Flag is an interesting one.
It was proposed as FLAG_SYMBOL_[country] but ﬂag designs could change. So next proposal was to
change to EMOJI_SYMBOL_[country] and let implementers decide how to display them. But country
could also change, so it was settled as combination of 2 REGIONAL_INDICATOR_SYMBOLS. (visual
representation is still up-to implementers. In reality mostly displayed as ﬂag).
Because Israel’s country code is IL and Liechtenstein’s country code is LI. If you put array of Israel ﬂag
emoji in code editor and hit back space, you see Liechtenstein ﬂag show up.
Flag and country is a highly political subject. Recently there was a bug which crashed iPhone if iPhone
user with region set to China received Taiwanese ﬂag.
Since Taiwan is not recognized as country in China, Apple added system to mask Taiwanese ﬂag if
Chinese user received Taiwanese ﬂag, unintentionally this caused the bug that crashed iPhone entirely.
Another interesting one from this time is this document made by Japanese publisher explaining
Japanese comic expressions.
They noticed proposed emoji example (in orange line) was loosing original meaning. They explained
the manga visual idioms and proposed change (in green line).
In the process of deﬁning emoji for Unicode, skin tone modiﬁer was added to support diverse skin
In order to display emoji with diﬀerent skin color, a default emoji and skin tone modiﬁer are sent as set.
It is then displayed as one emoji if the system supports them or 2 (default emoji + skin tone) if not
Ways to create compound emoji was developed in order to create more emoji from existing emoji.
Compound emoji use thing called zero width joiner which glues multiple emoji into one.
A family is constructed from 4 emoji…
… so if you type family emoji and hit backspace in code editor, you can see emoji changes, deleting
one family member at a time.
Two ladies kissing is constructed with two women, a heart, and a kiss emoji.
Rainbow ﬂag is made of plain ﬂag and rainbow emoji.
This is how emoji with diﬀerent profession are made.
Lady computer programmer is Woman + Computer
Lady mechanic is Woman + Wrench
Lady justice is Woman + Scales
To recap, emoji adoption in diﬀerent services caused emoji to be included in Unicode which brought
emoji to more universal icon set.
So what’s the future of emoji?
Probably the most interesting thing about emoji is that you get to help deﬁne new emoji. I think it’s the
only language in Unicode that is actively developed in stead of just documenting existing letters.
Unicode has a process to propose new emoji. There is a guideline so you can’t just add your brand’s
icon as emoji, but if you think certain emoji would be universally useful, you can make your own
For example, Apple proposed accessibility emoji set that includes guide dog and person with cane. It
is now a draft candidate so this might make it to oﬃcial unicode someday!
This is how person with headscarf (Hijab) emoji was added. A lady who wear hijab thought her
community should be represented in emoji so she contacted Unicode.
Dumpling or Empanada depending on where you are, was also added this way.
Salt shaker emoji is in newest version of Unicode and coming to device near you soon!
And that’s muy salado right? (I was told in Uruguay Spanish muy salado is a slang for “very good”).
Thank you for listening! If you have any questions, comments, concerns, please send me tweet at