You are here

From Zapf to Kurita: how emojis conquered our world one symbol at a time


mojis are dominating the visual language like a (smiley) virus. These digital ideograms, which for many are the hieroglyphics of the 21st century although they are not, were named after the the Japanese for pictograph: e “picture” + moji “character” are much like emoticons, but emoji are actual pictures instead of typography and they wouldn’t have happened if the iconic type designer Hermann Zapf hadn’t invented one of his most popular typefaces ever, back in the seventies.

This master of type design created numerous typefaces in various alphabets, from Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic all through Cherokee. He also envisioned ITC Zapf Dingbats -aka the most acclaimed dingbats collection that went on to become the foundation for Unicode’s symbols- before emojis were a thing. 

One of the first designers to “predict that computers would both require and make possible digital typeface” Zapf proposed to his friends Aaron Burns, Herb Lubalin and Edward Rondthaler from the International Typeface Corporation(ITC) to publish a typeface of special characters, arrows, and symbols. It was 1977. That year Zapf created about 1000 (or over 1200 according to Linotype) sketches of signs and symbols of which ITC chose a subset of 360 symbols, ornaments, and typographic elements. Obviously, ITC Zapf Dingbats took the visual language by storm and became one of 35 PostScript fonts built into Apple's LaserWriter Plus.

“Symbol fonts such as Zapf Dingbats were especially handy in the early days of personal computing when integrating symbols and graphics into documents was harder,” said FontLab's Thomas Phinney, on Zapf’s iconic legacy. “Because Zapf Dingbats was built into the first PostScript printers by Adobe, it became a standard. Among designers, it achieved legendary status when David Carson made an entire article about Bryan Ferry unreadable by setting it in Dingbats for Ray Gun magazine” he told Guardian.

Carson, uncompromising as ever, has said that his use of ITC Dingbats was his way to make a boring interview interesting. 

Filled with ornaments Dingbats paves the way for Microsoft to develop its own collection of Dingbats aka Wingdings in the 1990s and of course the original set of 176 emojis designed by NTT DOCOMO’s in 1999

“From its founding in 1991 by the Japanese national carrier Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, NTT DOCOMO was at the forefront of the burgeoning field of mobile communications. In keeping with Japan’s longstanding pioneering role in technological adoption, Japanese tech companies, and NTT DOCOMO in particular, were ahead of the curve in incorporating mobile Internet capabilities into cell phones. Early mobile devices, however, were rudimentary and visually unwieldy, capable of receiving only simple information about weather forecasts and basic text messaging. For the revolutionary 'i-mode' mobile Internet software NTT DOCOMO was developing, a more compelling interface was needed. Shigetaka Kurita, who was a member of the i-mode development team, proposed a better way to incorporate images in the limited visual space available on cell phone screens. Released in 1999, Kurita’s 176 emoji (picture characters) were instantly successful and copied by rival companies in Japan” notes MoMA’s Paul Galloway. 

The release of NTT DOCOMO’s emoji set of these revolutionary 12 x 12 pixels radicalized the way people communicate through small screens when it was released for cell phones in 1999. Twelve years later, in 2011, Apple introduced emoji functionality to its iOS messaging app and all emoji hell broke loose

“Shigetaka Kurita’s emoji are powerful manifestations of the capacity of design to alter human behavior”

“Shigetaka Kurita’s emoji are powerful manifestations of the capacity of design to alter human behavior. The design of a chair dictates our posture; so, too, does the format of electronic communication shape our voice. MoMA’s collection is filled with examples of design innovations that radically altered our world, from telephones to personal computers to the @ symbol. Today’s emoji (the current Unicode set numbers nearly 1,800) have evolved far beyond Kurita’s original 176 designs for NTT DOCOMO. However, the DNA for today’s set is clearly present in Kurita’s humble, pixelated, seminal emoji. Emoji continue to grow in use across the world” adds Galloway on the first set of emojis ever. 

But is this set the world's first emji-legion ever? Emojipedia's Editor in Chief, Jeremy Burge, begs to differ. 

Shigetaka Kurita, NTT DOCOMO. Emoji (original set of 176). 1998–99. Software and digital image files. Gift of NTT DOCOMO Inc., Japan @ MoMA

“Unless or until we find evidence that Docomo had an emoji set available prior to this release, we hereby issue a correction that the original emoji set is from SoftBank in Japan in 1997, with designer/s unknown”

“Until now, Japanese phone carrier Docomo has most often been widely credited as the originator of what we know as emoji today. It turns out, that might not be the case, and today we are correcting the record. SoftBank, the carrier that partnered with Apple to bring the iPhone to Japan in 2008, released a phone with support for 90 distinct emoji characters in 1997... The 90 emojis from SoftBank in 1997 predate the set of 176 emojis released by Docomo in 1999, which until now have most commonly been cited (including by Emojipedia) as being the first. Not only was the 1997 SoftBank emoji set released earlier than the first known date of the Docomo emoji set (in '1998 or 1999'), one of the most iconic emoji characters now encoded as U+1F4A9 PILE OF POO in the Unicode Standard, originated in this release. Unless or until we find evidence that Docomo had an emoji set available prior to this release, we hereby issue a correction that the original emoji set is from SoftBank in Japan in 1997, with designer/s unknown” he notes.

The SoftBank 1997 emoji set might have been the original first, uncredited, emoji set ever via Emojipedia

“Emojis will never be a replacement for the written word and I doubt they would have the capacity to help build and maintain an entire civilisation”

As for emojis as the hieroglyphics of our times? Well, UCL’s Julia Deathridge has some insights on why they are not. “The hieroglyphics language was far more than ‘picture writing’. It allowed ancient Egyptians to compose a huge variety of texts from medical documents to poetry – texts that are significantly more advanced than what is possible to convey with emojis. Let’s just say if my doctor tried to write my medical report purely in emojis I would be concerned! Emojis are a great form of communication and can add a creative flair to how we message one another. However, they will never be a replacement for the written word and I doubt they would have the capacity to help build and maintain an entire civilisation. If I change my mind and decide to write my thesis in emoji, I’ll let you know!”

Parachute's Grand Gothik type system comes with an extended character set of weather icons, numeral symbols, wayfinding arrows, movie rating stars and emojis

Happy World Emoji Day everyone, may the Face with Tears of Joy be with you.