Installation view of Inbox: The Original Emoji, by Shigetaka Kurita at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Shown: Shigetaka Kurita, NTT DOCOMO. Emoji (original set of 176). 1998–99. Software and digital image files. Gift of NTT DOCOMO Inc., Japan. © 2016 NTT DOCOMO. Photo: John Wronn

In 1999 the Japanese telecom NTT DOCOMO released the original 176 emoji (e meaning “picture” and moji “character”) for mobile phones and pagers. Designed on a simple 12 × 12 pixel grid by Shigetaka Kurita, emoji enhanced the visual interface for DOCOMO’s devices and facilitated the rise of the nascent practice of text messaging and mobile email. Drawing on varied sources including manga, Zapf dingbats, and commonly used emoticons (simple faces made out of pre-existing glyphs), Kurita’s set included illustrations of weather phenomena, pictograms, and a range of expressive faces. Simple, elegant, and incisive, Kurita’s emoji planted the seeds for the explosion of a new visual language.

The shift toward concise, telegraphic correspondence that began with the advent of email in the 1970s accelerated dramatically when messaging moved to mobile. The abridged nature of mobile communication tends to obscure tone and emotion. Emoji, when combined with text, allow for more nuanced intonation. Filling in for body language, they reassert the human in the abstract space of electronic communication.

Today, with nearly 1,800 in use, emoji are an increasingly complex companion to written language. Kurita’s emoji are powerful manifestations of the capacity of design to alter human behavior. Just as the design of a chair dictates our posture, so, too, do the designs of various formats of electronic communication shape our voice. Although emoji have advanced far beyond Kurita’s original 176 designs, the DNA for today’s emoji is clearly present in Kurita’s humble, pixelated, seminal designs.

Organized by the Department of Architecture and Design.

This installation is made possible by The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art.

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