How Emojis Play a Role Beyond Decoration

A Design in the Life #10

The History and Origins of Emojis

Calendar emoji

July 17th is known as “World Emoji Day” or “Emoji Day.” On many digital devices, the emoji for “calendar” is set to July 17th. But what is the significance of this date? It all goes back to July 17, 2002, when Apple’s official calendar app for macOS, iCal, was announced. The icon representation for the app was set to July 17th. Since then, it has become common to see the calendar emoji representing July 17th, not only in Apple environments but also in other platforms. 

Emojis play a role beyond mere decoration or accentuation in modern communication. They are widely used in various services and have become an important element of communication, not just in language. While language has allowed us to convey and record human will and emotions, if we look back to ancient times, we can see that our ancestors used “pictures” to communicate. In the present day, that style has been revived in the form of emojis, adding color to our lives.

The History of Communication through Images and Symbols

The Cave Paintings of Lascaux

Since ancient times when writing was first developed, it has been believed that humans communicated through images. Recent studies have even found elements resembling symbols indicating seasons and harvest periods in the vivid cave paintings of Lascaux in France, dating back approximately 17,000 years and considered the oldest known paintings. It is possible that what was previously thought to be mere pictures were actually early forms of writing.

Design and History of the Smiley

The simple expression of a smiling face, known as the Smiley, is beloved worldwide. This Smiley was designed in 1963 by a local designer named Harvey Ball for a campaign by an insurance company in Massachusetts, USA. It is believed to have had a strong influence on the current use of emoticons and emojis.

Text-based Emoticons on the Internet

The book Wan2tlk? published in 2001 focused solely on text-based emoticons in English characters. It is known that in 1982, Professor Scott Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University in the USA proposed sideways face expressions to represent laughter “:-)” and anger “:-(“. Around 1986 in Japan, emoticons combining symbols such as “(^_^)” started to be used in computer communications.

Emojis Introduced in i-mode

The internet service for mobile phones in Japan called “i-mode,” which started in 1999, introduced 176 emojis, sparking a significant movement. In 2016, an exhibition on emojis was held at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and since then, emojis have been preserved as part of their permanent collection. The use of a heart symbol “♥️” in Japan’s widely used pocket pagers before the widespread adoption of mobile phones is said to have been the catalyst for the development of emojis on mobile devices.

Emoji, by Shigetaka Kurita (MoMA)

Unified Meaning Worldwide through Unicode

Around 2008, emojis became universally accessible through Unicode, a character encoding standard for multilingual use on computers. Since then, common emojis that represent the same meanings can be used regardless of the device or platform. Various emoji codes have been added over the years, and recently, emojis that consider gender and skin tone have also been included.

Facebook’s Reaction Emojis

In the early days of Facebook, there was only the “Like” reaction, represented by a thumbs-up, as per the intention of CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Around 2016, reflecting the diversification of communication, the reactions expanded to six types, including surprise and laughter, in addition to the thumbs-up. These were selected as “Reaction Emojis” based on the statistics of commonly used English words on social media. Since the global threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, a reaction with a heart symbol embracing it (signifying care) has been added.

Emoji Support on iPhone

Emojis became available on iPhones first in Japan in 2008 and globally in 2011. This was a significant milestone as it introduced icon-like single-character emoji representations, rather than combinations of characters and symbols like (^_^) or :). It played a role in the widespread adoption of emojis worldwide.

Emojis are an important element of communication in Slack

Bulk Emoji Uploader, a tool to register multiple emojis on Slack

In the chat tool “Slack,” widely used among IT companies, users can easily and freely create custom emojis, resulting in the use of emojis specific to each company or community. The utilization of emojis in Slack and the use of original emojis are said to represent the company culture and community nature.

Emojis are ambiguous and emotional, conveying empathy quickly

By utilizing emojis, communication beyond language barriers becomes easier, and it is believed to make it easier for others to empathize. While the convenience of quickly expressing intentions is appealing, you may have experienced moments of hesitation in choosing which emoji to use or confusion when receiving strange emojis from friends on social media, not knowing their intended meaning.

Communication utilizing emojis has the following elements and impressions:

  • Messages without emojis are often perceived as formal and dull by the digital native generation.
  • The types of emojis used in the workplace differ from those used between family members or close friends.
  • Individuals who use the same emoji with the same meaning feel a sense of familiarity and strengthen their bond.
  • Emojis using faces and expressions can be interpreted differently by different people.
  • The nuances and information conveyed by a single emoji are equivalent to several characters or words of text.
  • There are emojis that are only understood within a specific company or community, and interpretations of emojis can vary.
  • Even if unintentional, emojis can have negative or sexual meanings depending on culture and language.

Overcoming Cultural and Language Barriers, or Embracing Diversity

Emojis created by the Japanese and heavily influenced by Japanese culture are now known as “emojis” in the West and have become widespread worldwide. In a way, it may be one of Japan’s proudest digital platforms. Even familiar emojis we use in our daily lives can have different meanings when cultural backgrounds and languages differ. Not only culture and language but even among colleagues we work with or among family and friends, the same emoji can be interpreted differently depending on the context.

The Paella Emoji

Seafood paella until 2016; From 2017 on, the paella emoji is with chicken.

When ordering paella at a Japanese restaurant, it usually comes with seafood such as shrimp, squid, and mussels. However, the original paella, originating from the Valencia region in Spain, is made with saffron-flavored chicken and vegetables. Around 2016, a major movement called #ComboiPaellaEmoji occurred on Twitter, and many paella emojis, including Apple’s emoji, were changed from seafood-style to chicken-style. (In Tokyo’s Nihonbashi Takashimaya, there is a paella specialty store curated by the world champion of paella. Ordering the Valencian-style paella, which is their most popular dish, will give you a visual that closely resembles the paella emoji.) To enrich emojis derived from various cultures, including food culture, the organization Emojination was established in 2015. It is said that the addition of the dumpling emoji around 2017 was a result of Emojination’s efforts.

The Bowing Emoji

In Japan, the emoji of a person bowing deeply, often used to convey meanings like “thank you” or “I’m sorry,” is a culturally specific emoji called “dogeza” or “prostrating oneself.” Dogeza is an extreme form of apology where one kneels and touches one’s head to the ground, symbolizing a profound apology even to the extent of being willing to have one’s head cut off in a samurai society. When I asked English-speaking acquaintances about the bowing emoji, they told me they had always thought it represented someone doing push-ups while sweating, and I strangely understood their perspective.

The Money with Wings Emoji

When you see the emoji of money with wings, what do you imagine? Sudden expenses? Splurging? Many people might think of it as cash flying away with wings from their wallet. However, depending on culture and language, some people may interpret it as a quick way to earn money, a sudden windfall, or money raining down. Globally, the percentage of people who think money is going out and those who think money is coming in is almost the same. It might be a good idea not to firmly believe that “this emoji means this!” and instead reconfirm the meaning of emojis with acquaintances.

Now, as humans with various thoughts and emotions, is it ideal for us to communicate things 100% accurately and without any ambiguity? It is precisely because of the ambiguity and various interpretations in our communication that interactions between people are possible, making it both interesting and challenging. When sending a message to someone, while thinking that emojis are a quick way to convey empathy, I find myself strangely hesitating about whether to use emojis or not. 🙂


In “A Design In The Life” series, we will provide hints on improving the resolution of the design experience from the perspectives of both designs in daily life and design in digital space. If you have a topic you would like us to cover, please let us know.

Written By

Yukio Andoh

Yukio is an UX Designer, UX Writer, Design Sprint Master. He has worked on a wide range of projects from web design, information appliances, smartphone applications, VR systems, giant stereoscopic dome theaters, digital signage, and media art. He loves movies and science fiction novels, and is buried in books in his everyday life.


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