The History of Emojis: Our Favorite Keyboard Characters

Emojis have become an important way for our new generation to express themselves. Instead of writing full sentences or phrases like “I love you”, “That’s funny” or “How exciting”, these words have been replaced with a happy face, a heart. or a balloon. Keyboard apps like ai.type have also programed an “auto-emoji” function that can choose the right emoji to send based on the context of your message.


Auto-emoji feature from ai.type keyboard app

One could even say that our generation has gone back thousands of years ago to the days of hieroglyphics or ancient Chinese. Although emojis might sometimes cut our sentences short- they are jam packed full of meaning and emotion, not far from the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

Back in the 90’s when pagers were the new device to hit the market, a Japanese man by the name of Shigetaka Kurita working for mobile company Docomo at the time created the first set of 12 X12 pixel emoji. A heart-shaped symbol used in pagers had already been a huge success for the company in the past and Kurita was looking for other ways to convey face-to-face communication.


First emojis designed by Shigetaka Kurita , NTT Docomo


The Japanese rely on facial expression, tone of voice and posture to tell them what someone feels. It was therefore important for Kurita to be able to find a way to communicate this way in messaging- when text messages are supposed to be short and to the point. The main objective was to encode these byte-sized pictures into actually, well, two byte codes that each correspond to a unique image. This way, emojis could be easily translated to keyboards of mobile phones. It wasn’t, however, until 2010 where emoji were adopted into the Unicode Consortium Standard which contains code for displaying characters. This was meant to ensure messages sent on phones and computers appear the same on both ends. Once Apple adopted a Unicode emoji keyboard in 2011 they made their breakthrough overseas and really became international.

Set of emojis from ai.type keyboard app

Set of emojis from ai.type keyboard app

In recent years, emojis have taken on a new, more modern look and include images for “prayer” and almost every animal you could possibly think of. They have gotten so popular in American pop culture that Katy Perry even released her music video “Roar” that was mostly expressed in emoji. The “crying from laughter” emoji is currently the most popular emoji on Twitter and has is being used in over 496 million tweets in real time.

New developments are still to come and new characters are continuously being added to the emoji collection every year. Although Kurita has left Docomo and now works for a different company his legacy will live on forever- or at least until the next collection of characters will take over. What’s amazing is that the imagination of one man can reach the mobile phones of millions of people and become the new standard in daily communication.