Shigetaka Kurita designed the first emoji set that laid the foundation for what is now the world’s fastest-growing form of communication. Kurita’s original 176 designs, which launched in February 1999 for Japanese mobile phones, were weirdly specific, including no fewer than five phases of the moon, three timepieces (watch, clock, sand-timer) and two states of an umbrella (open, closed).
Today, more than 1,800 emojis are in the current set. And emoji are estimated to be used by more than 90% of the world’s online population.
For some, these “brainless little icons” (as Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones described them last year) represent not an adjunct but a regression for our species. Their precursor, hieroglyphics, Jones argues, never produced an Iliad or an Odyssey because, put simply, the written word is infinitely more adaptable. But, for most, emojis offer not a substitute for the written word, but a complement, lending brevity or wit, irony or joy, to a text message.
The people who use emojis are indeed proving detractors wrong, at least regarding the form’s adaptability. For example, denied a pictorial penis, millions have come to rely on the aubergine emoji – purple engorged, topped with a pubic shock of green leaves. This abusage is now so widespread that, in 2015, Instagram banned search results for photographs tagged with an aubergine emoji, fearing their users would include it as a signifier of nudity. An American woman solidified the double meaning in the minds of many, when, last month, she launched a vibrator made in the eggplant’s image.