You might think of emoji as a lowbrow form of communication, but according to MoMA, it’s art. The museum added the original 176 emoji, developed by Shigetaka Kurita for Japanese pagers in 1999, to its collection. “With the advent of email in the 1970s … the conveyance of tone and emotion became both harder and more urgently important,” MoMA design specialist Paul Galloway wrote. “When combined with text, these simple images allow for more nuanced intonation.”
MoMA licensed the emjoi through a licensing deal with DoCoMo. In December, the New York-based museum will display them in the lobby, using both standard graphics and animations. “In a sense, what we’ve really acquired is a new communication platform,” Paola Antonelli told the New York Times.
Developing the 12 by 12 pixel characters for NTT DoCoMo was no easy task. To convey a host of information with just 144 dots, Kurita studied manga, street signs and Chinese characters. Some of the 176 pictograms, like a heart, laughing smiley and martini glass, are instantly recognizable. Others, like a red circle with three lines, are obtuse unless you know the translation (a hot spring!).
Used at the time to convey the weather and other messages, the symbols were a hit and copied by rival Japanese carriers. However, it took another 12 years for them to go mainstream. First they were translated into unicode in 2010, then Apple unveiled a much larger set for its original iPhone the following year. They’ve expanded rapidly ever since, and there are now almost 2,000 standard emoji and a freaking movie, something Kurita probably never saw coming.