The man behind smiley faces

Have your say

Every day billions of emoji are sent around the world.

These tiny graphical characters are used to convey a myriad meanings, from smiley faces to broken hearts.

The first emoji set was created by Shigetaka Kurita in 1999 for a Japanese mobile Internet service called i-mode.

Kurita took inspiration from street signs, symbols in weather forecasts, and visual metaphors from manga comic books, including a lightbulb to represent an idea.

The first emoji were simple low resolution graphics – just 12 by 12 pixels each – but as screens gained greater definition, emoji designers were able to add more character to their creations.

It was not until emoji were added to the Unicode standard in 2010, right alongside the world’s traditional writing systems, that it became possible to reliably send emoji from one kind of service or device to another.

The following year Apple made their emoji keyboard available to all iOS users, and this is perhaps the moment when emoji became a truly global phenomenon.

Now emoji are everywhere, and are as likely to appear at the end of a text message from your grandmother as they are to feature in a brand’s Facebook ad campaign.

Every year new emoji are added by Unicode. Anyone can submit a proposal for consideration, although the criteria is quite strict.

New emoji must be visually distinct, so users do not get confused. They have to represent something that will stand the test of time, so no passing fads. Brand identities and deities are not allowed.

The latest emoji to arrive on our screens include a unicorn, dinosaur and “shushing face”, however these are unlikely to replace the most popular emoji – such as the heart, “face blowing a kiss” and – at number one in the UK – “face with tears of joy.”

“I didn’t assume that emoji would spread and become so popular internationally,” the inventor of emoji, Shigetaka Kurita, said recently.

“I’m surprised at how widespread they have become. Then again, they are universal, so they are useful communication tools that transcend language.”

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design