“A picture is worth a thousand words” is an adage in many languages, a lofty way of saying that complex ideas can be better conveyed by a single still image than a long stretch of words. For a visual person like me, – phew.
While I myself am a champion of this saying, it was first coined back in 1911, when the Syracuse Advertising Men’s Club held a banquet to discuss journalism and publicity. In an article in The Post-Standard covering this event, the author quoted Arthur Brisbane as saying “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”
Roll on 110 years and it’s not just me that prefers pictures to words. Turn on any device or social media app and our reliance on using a picture to convey a story or a message has been boiled down to something most of us could never have predicted – the worldwide phenomenon of the emoji.
From hearts to worried faces, and every weather and alcoholic beverage symbol in between, having a chat with your mate (or a colleague) has never been easier.
A joke shared 😂, a presentation delivered 👌, relationships formed ❤️, emojis are on hand to help us react in this fast-paced world with little more than the tap of a key.
Now happy icons are not a new thing. The first smiley face was designed in 1963 by Harvey Ball, an American graphic artist, to raise the morale of employees at an insurance company currently feeling fatigue of the courts 😔.
The smiley face was then hijacked by the American counter-culture of the 70s, before crashing back into the popular consciousness of the acid house scene in the late 80’s. Even a chap called Pac-Man got in on the action.
But SoftBank, known as J-Phone at the time, released the SkyWalker mobile phone in November 1997, with the world’s first known original emoji set designed by Shigetaka Kurita. This set included 90 distinct emoji characters, among them one of the most iconic to date; the humble poo 💩. These emoji designs heavily influenced Apple’s original emoji alphabet and those we all use today.
In 1999 Kurita went on to to create 176 more characters and was challenged to keep these within a 250-max limit of software restrictions at the time. Conveying such an expressive set of emotions in a short way within these limitations was a truly impressive achievement.
Big brands are now using emojis in advertising; we use them to communicate quickly in Teams meetings; and even clients react to work with a thumbs up or a clap mid presentation.
Beyond the ease of showing an emotion, immediate praise and the humour of a cleverly timed eggplant 🍆, this ever-evolving language has also been a rich source of ideas for groups and organisations. It’s becoming part of a more widespread conversation to tackle taboos around gender, discuss race, and raise awareness of endangered species, with the inclusion of skin tones, lgbtq+ representation and even animal welfare icons.
This modern style of semiotics pays close attention to how the icons are used to impart meaning to their intended recipients (be it humorously) effectively, and emotionally. Shigetaka Kurita’s emojis have become powerful manifestations of the capacity of design to alter human behaviour. Another excellent example of making the complex more compelling.
Now with 107 new emojis scheduled for release in 2022 (taking the alphabet to a whopping 3,460) the artform looks unlikely to disappear into the shadows. While some might herald this as a new age in copy, others might argue we’ve done nothing but come full circle – utilising nothing more than very modern (and yellow) hieroglyphics. Whether you ❤️ them or really couldn’t give a 🐀🍑, I think we can all agree, Shigetaka Kurita deserves a 👍👏🎉.