The Power of the Emoji, Japan's Most Transformative Modern Design

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 7/17/2017, 2:29 p.m.
Emojis have become, without a doubt, a design classic. But how effective are they as a communication tool?
Over 6 billion emojis are sent on a daily basis, with over 90% of the world's online community making regular use of them. Emojis may be one of Japan's greatest-ever exports.

By Vyvyan Evans

CNN

(CNN) -- Emojis have become, without a doubt, a design classic. But how effective are they as a communication tool?

Over 6 billion emojis are sent on a daily basis, with over 90% of the world's online community making regular use of them. Emojis may be one of Japan's greatest-ever exports.

Today they are even officially classified as art. In 2016, New York's Museum of Modern Art added emojis to its permanent collection -- more specifically, the original 176 emojis, designed by Tokyo-based software engineer Shigetaka Kurita in 1999.

Kurita's original emojis, licensed to the MoMA by NTT DoCoMo, now sit alongside works by Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock.

In the late 1990s, Kurita -- working for NTT DoCoMo, one of the largest Japanese mobile telephone operators -- was involved in the development of the world's first commercial, mobile-specific internet browser system. Given display limitations in early Japanese smart phone screens, Kurita decided to develop pictograms to make displaying information more effective.

Taking their name from the Japanese word for "picture character," emojis were born.

Is emoji a language?

What makes English, Japanese, or Swahili a language is the presence of two things: words and rules. And it is the unique nature of this organization that allows us to express complex and subtle ideas that cannot be expressed using other systems of communication.

Language is organized into meaningful units such as words, and a system of rules -- a grammar -- that enables us to compose our words and express everything from the gnawing ache of unrequited love to a banal observation on the weather.

Compared to, say, English, emoji has a far, far smaller 'vocabulary.'

While new emojis are introduced each year, the number of emojis available is vanishingly small compared to the range and complexity of vocabulary items that a competent native speaker possesses -- currently there are fewer than 2,000 emojis available on a smartphone near you.

Compare this with the English words you have at your fingertips: by the age of five, and barely out of kindergarten, you would already have known around 5,000 English words, reaching an impressive 12,000 by your early teens -- far outstripping the total number of emojis currently available.

But adding more and more emojis will only get us so far.

A potentially insurmountable problem is the sheer difficulty of expressing abstract ideas using a pictographic form. Winks, smileys, eggplants and dumplings are one thing -- but how might we go about representing, say, "chauvinism," "feminist," "ethical" or "iconoclastic" in emoji?

Even if an emoji "language" could somehow overcome the lack of working vocabulary to express all the things we need a language to say, words, on their own, still don't get us very far.

The hallmark of language is grammar. We use it, without even knowing it, to do the heavy lifting: combining vocabulary items to create sentences of potentially great complexity.

But even this has not put off some dedicated aficionados.

For instance, designer Ken Hale is so passionate about emoji that he has translated literary classics like Alice in Wonderland into the characters. Hale calls his approach to creating an emoji language "crypto-semantics."