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Meet the Graphic Designers Behind the Emojis We Love

Laura Busche March 31, 2021 · 4 min read
Emoji (絵文字) is a Japanese word that stands for “picture characters” or pictogram. Here’s how that actually works:
絵 (e, picture) 文 (mo, writing) 字 (ji, character)

A Little Emoji History

Emoji were born in a Japanese research facility in 1999, and cell phone users in that country became the first to share their hearts out with winks, blown kisses and tears of joy. As much as we’d like to believe that these emotion-filled pictures have feelings, it’s important to understand that our devices don’t really read them like that. Behind every picture is a unique numeric value defined in an international encoding standard known as Unicode. That’s how a lollipop becomes U+1F36D. (Remember that, it’s important!) Emoji1 These guys are known as Level 1 Emoji, 722 items that we inherited from the original Japanese symbols. In 2006, Google started converting the original Japanese Emoji to Unicode private-use codes, and later made a formal proposal to include them in the list of symbols recognized by everyone else (i.e. the Unicode Consortium). In 2009, the first Unicode characters explicitly intended as emoji were finally added to Unicode 5.2. 722 emoji characters are now available in the standard Unicode 6.0 character set shared by most modern platforms. Unicode 7 and Unicode 8 include newly approved emojis like diverse people and family types, but few of these are widely supported. Emoji2 Emoji3

Customizing Emoji Design: No, They Don’t Need To Look The Same.

Remember the Unicode numeric value we talked about above? What that means for designers is that they have some freedom to decide what picture best represents that standard number. Of course there are some guidelines, but there is also wide creative freedom. Ever since Emoji became wildly popular, Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS, Microsoft’s Windows, Facebook and Twitter, have all reinterpreted the original alphabet adding their own aesthetic touch. As you probably know, iOS 9 now supports a total of 1,393 emojis, including awesome new flags and skin tone modifiers. Emoji4 Meet some of the geniuses behind the Emoji that power our best conversations:

Willem Van Lancker, Apple Emoji

While at Apple, Willem created hundreds of characters for the native color Emoji font. Originally designed for the iPhone in Japan, they are now used worldwide. Van Lancker completed a BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design and has worked in interaction design at IDEO and Google. In 2012, he co-founded Oyster, a better way to read books. Emoji5 In his personal site, Willem explains how these symbols have taken a life of their own.

The Iconfactory Team, Twemoji (Twitter Emoji)

The Iconfactory worked hand-in-hand with the team at Twitter to develop a new set of emoji icons for the web. Iconfactory creates icons, user interfaces, and branding for clients of all sizes on every development platform. Meet their team of designers. Emoji6

IC4 Design, Google Emoji

Google went back to basics and hired this Japanese design agency to bring back some of the fun emotions that led the creation of the first emoji. Working in collaboration with the company’s design team, they created a vibrant set of symbols that goes beyond round faces and bland expressions. Emoji7

Shigetaka Kurita, The Father of Japanese Emoji

Kurita created the original set of Japanese Emoji that started this entire revolution. In this interview, he reveals that he did it as a member of the team that, at the time, was preparing for the debut of NTT Docomo’s i-mode, the world’s first mobile Internet system. Kurita just had one month to come up with the first 180 emoji, and dedicated the first 10 days to going out to the field and observing how people expressed themselves. The result? A set of emotion icons inspired by Manga and Japanese pictograms that continues to excite millions of users around the world. kddi_original1 Some of the original Docomo Emoji

Emoji and Emoticons Keep Evolving

Human creativity and expression have no limits, and some Creative Market shop owners have taken it in their own hands to design the next generation of Emojis and Emoticons:
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About the Author
Author
Laura Busche

Brand strategist. Creating design tools to empower creative entrepreneurs. Author of the Lean Branding book. MA in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

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5 Comments
  • I didn't know that it started from Japanese :) Good Sharing 7 years ago
  • Nive to know! Awesome article! It's always fine to know about something that we use everyday like emoji 5 years ago
  • Hi there where I found the Hug emoji in my galaxy note five. Can you help me in this regard? Thank you 4 years ago
  • Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the USA. Played all over the world. When will we get Pickleball emojis? 3 years ago
  • Please make an emoji of a black hand and white hand (hand shake) or make it an option when you hold the emoji hand shake sign. 2 years ago