With their string of publications including republishing the detailed graphic standards manuals for Nasa and the New York City Transit Authority, Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed’s mission has been to “preserve and archive design history”. Their publishing imprint’s latest shines a light on the designer behind one of the most popular graphic devices ever conceived – emoji. Designed by Shigetaka Kurita for Japanese telecoms company Docomo and released in 1999, the original 176 pictorial symbols were, Hamish and Jesse explain, never expected to become such a phenomenon – which somehow makes the story of their origins even more fascinating.
“Mr Kurita and the other Docomo people who were there at the time were all pretty young when it happened, because they’re all in their mid 40s now,” Hamish tells It’s Nice That. “So it’s recent history, even though it’s ancient history in the digital sense.” Hamish and Jesse met the designer and many of the original team to interview them for the book, which charts all 176 emoji and shows how these were concepted, researched, sketched and drawn on 12×12 pixel grids.
“One of the things that spurred emoji was that the programme Docomo was using couldn’t carry that much digital information, but the company wanted to experiment with how to add emotion to communication over email and things like that,” Jesse says. “One thing we heard,” Hamish interjects, “is that Japanese language is very expressive with emotion, and emoji was an attempt to help convey emotion via pictures, so instead of writing a short message you could attach a face that carried much more emotion than you could write, especially with the limited amount of characters you could include back then. So it was a way to help with their cultural need of expressing emotion, but it turns out we were all longing for that.”
“Today, they are essential for closing the gaps in digital communication,” Jesse says. “That’s how people are communicating now, and for younger generations, this is all they’re going to know.”
The duo also learned that around the time Docomo came up with the idea, technology was progressing to a point where devices and programmes were able to transfer small amounts of data, so someone in the company suggested the introduction of icons you could send. “It was almost just a one-off,” Hamish says, “a marketing ploy to beat the other phone companies. They had no idea 20 years later we’d be discussing it like this, or even used that much at all. Now, five billion emojis are sent per day, it’s one of the most used things ever designed.”
Though Kurita received some attention when MoMA acquired the original emoji in 2016, Hamish and Jesse felt the story hadn’t permeated with enough designers yet. “He’s just a guy, he’s not famous, he’s very humble. We wanted to extend that acknowledgment further, to get him at the forefront and get the credit to the designer behind this global phenomenon,” Jesse says. As designers themselves, Hamish and Jesse gathered material and information to explore the design development in detail. Along the way they learned about the challenges Kurita faced, such as working with a 12 pixel grid, which means you can’t centre an object, and curves (see the umbrella symbol) are a tricky exercise. “The technical limitations meant they had to be so simple, and that simplicity is still such a part of emojis today,” says Hamish.
Then, the duo had to figure out how to convey these tiny digital symbols in a print, “not their native environment,” he explains. The final format sees each emoji given a double page spread, with the righthand page showing the grid and how the icon was drawn, as well as technical information from Docomo. The lefthand page shows it blown up in full colour, while up in the top left it is depicted at one-to-one scale, showing how the designer had to consider its minute viewing proportions.
“As designers we’re interested in seeing that grid and how it was all made,” Hamish says. “You can imagine yourself designing it. It’s almost like a children’s colouring book, it’s so simple.” Jesse adds: “An underlying grid is such a graphic design trick. Most of these identity guidelines coming out today are made up after the fact, they’re not necessary, but here it was truly the framework for developing the illustrations. It was the architecture, and it’s a quintessential exercise in reductive design.”
The book also features text from Kurita, and Paola Antonelli and Paul Galloway at MoMA, to give the subject historical perspective. “It looks at emojis from a cultural perspective, and an academic perspective in terms of its design contribution, because Kurita says he doesn’t consider himself a designer, but this is definitely a graphic design problem that he solved.”
Emoji by Standards Manual launches on Kickstarter today (30 April), along with a smartphone keyboard of the original emoji.