Long before the prayer hands were immortalised in ink on Drake’s arm, before we could order Domino’s pizza with a pictograph, even before we were sexting with eggplants and camels, there was the very first set of emoji.
Those pixellated, primitive symbols don’t look like much today’s, but they launched a phenomenon that completely transformed communication in the 21st century. In honour of their impact, the 176 original emoji have officially been enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Take that, friend-who-still-refuses-to-use-emoji-because-he-thinks-it’s-beneath-him.
Paul Galloway, MoMA’s Architecture & Design Collection Specialist, detailed the history of emoji and the reasoning behind MoMA’s bold move to make them part of the permanent collection in a post on Medium.
“Filling in for body language, emoticons, kaomoji, and emoji reassert the human in the deeply impersonal, abstract space of electronic communication,” he wrote.
“Emoji are powerful manifestations of the capacity of design to alter human behavior,” he continued. In the same way that the design of a chair dictates posture, the format of electronic communication shapes how we speak. MoMA’s collection is filled with examples of design innovations that radically altered our world – and so the emoji, in its own colourful, cutesy way, fits right in.
The first emoji were designed by Shigetaka Kurita for the Japanese mobile carrier NTT DoCoMo. Kurita created the glyphs on tiny grids measuring 12 pixels by 12 pixels after studying manga, street signs, and Chinese characters. Emoji didn’t gain worldwide acclaim when they launched in 1999, but as 2016 clearly knows, Kurita’s hard work eventually paid off.
MoMA will feature the 176 original emoji in the museum’s lobby starting in December, as part of an exhibit that includes other graphics and animations. It’s time to book a trip to the Big Apple and brush up on your emoji etiquette.