Shigetaka Kurita. Emoji. 1998-1999

Shigetaka Kurita Emoji 1998-1999

  • MoMA, Floor 1

In 1999 the Japanese mobile phone company NTT DOCOMO released a set of 176 emoji for mobile phones and pagers. Designed on a twelve-by-twelve-pixel grid, the emoji—a portmanteau of the Japanese words e, or “picture,” and moji, or “character”—enhanced the visual interface for NTT DOCOMO’s devices and facilitated the nascent practice of text messaging and mobile email. Drawing on sources as varied as Japanese graphic novels, the typeface Zapf Dingbats, and common emoticons (simple faces that computer users made out of preexisting punctuation marks), Kurita, a designer at NTT DOCOMO, included illustrations of weather phenomena, pictograms like the heart symbol, and a range of facial expressions.

The shift toward concise, telegraphic correspondence that began with the advent of email in the 1970s accelerated dramatically when messaging moved to mobile devices. People had even less space and time to get their point across, and the conveyance of tone and emotion became both more difficult and more urgent. Emoji, when combined with text, allow for more nuanced intonation. Filling in for body language, they reassert the human within the deeply impersonal, abstract space of electronic communication. Now, with more than 2,600 in use, emoji have evolved far beyond NTT DOCOMO’s original set into an essential, global, and increasingly complex companion to written language. Nonetheless, the DNA for today’s emoji is clearly present in Kurita’s humble pixelated designs.

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Additional text

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.

Gallery label from Inbox: The Original Emoji, by Shigetaka Kurita, 2016.
Manufacturer
NTT DOCOMO, Inc.
Medium
Digital image
Dimensions
Dimensions variable
Credit
Gift of NTT DOCOMO, Inc
Object number
961.2016
Copyright
© 2021 NTT DOCOMO
Department
Architecture and Design
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