Emojis on a yellow background

Picture More Character in Messages: The Journey from Dingbat to Emoji

All about iconography, Emoticons and Emoji

Recent advances in technology have been to make communication more fun. Emojis have vastly become popular among people using smartphone devices and computers. Using images in writing is not a new element in composing a letter. This has been something that always was in written forms of communication in multiple ways over the years.

What is pictography?

Pictography is the communication and expression of thought and ideas with pictures or graphics. In cultures like Egyptian hieroglyphics, Indigenous writing systems, Japanese kanji and Chinese language use variations of pictographic writing styles to create language. There are many types of pictography. Ideogram is a pictograph of an individual idea or meaning for example πŸ™‰πŸ™ˆπŸ™Šwhich can mean hear no evil, see no evil and say no evil versus a logogram which is a pictograph of an individual word,🐡 here is a monkey. In pictorial messaging, images can say a thousand words. Using images can be fun and resourceful when done properly.

A History of Images in Letters

Even though the story really starts with the birth of punctuation. I’m going to start with how it was used to convey emotion which was always apparent with the chronic appearance of people drawing a smiling face on professional documents. Sometimes it’s hard to express a joke, irony, sarcasm or being happy. πŸ™‚

Let’s start with the dingbat in letter print. The definition of dingbats is ornamental blocks printers used in typesetting, like the spacer, decorative lines and symbols to help design the layout of a page and make it look less overwhelming, cluttered and “blocky”. The blocks basic function to add space, personality and readability to the page. The wooden blocks of dingbats were converted for digital use in the Unicode character code database when computer usage became more mainstream. It grew with the additions of Zapf Dingbat fonts from typographer Hermann Zapf, who added symbols like religious symbols, numbers, check marks and voting marks.

The 4,000 year old Hittite pot with the smiley face.
The 4,000 year old Hittite pot with the smiley face.

Shorthand writing was not from the computer age, it’s from the same period from the first development of the dingbat. Shorthand was used in written documents the same way it was used today. Cleverly placed punctuation and letters gave the reader insight of what the writer had in mind. Shorthand expressions can be found on the old documents. The first use of the πŸ™‚ in an document came from multiple places in history to convey cheekiness. One of the first came from a 4,000 year old letter signed to a maker of sherbet (sweet drink.) They were pleased to the contents inside and signed their name with a smile which was found on a Hittite pot centuries later in Turkey.

Puck magazine excerpt about Typographical Art with joy, melancholy, indifference and astonishment using punctuation.
Puck magazine excerpt about Typographical Art.

Around 1881, Puck magazine which was an illustrated humor magazine similar to MAD Magazine but more satirical and political had editors write an article for cartoonists to use punctuation to represent joy, melancholy, indifference and astonishment with punctuation marks.

The : ) in shorthand carried over into the computer age as people signed off on emails with a smile; this is called an emoticon. One of the first times the shorthand smiley face was used in modern times was in a 1982 email as joke markers. : – ) Happy. : – ( Sad.

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: πŸ™‚

Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use: 😦

Scott Fahlman, computer scientist and Professor Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University, writing to a peer about sarcasm in an email conversation.

In the growing use of the internet, the smiling face was used often in email translations and chat messaging. “AOL Instant Messaging Services” replaced the shorthand type of the smiling face for the iconographic yellow circle smile :). These faces grew in popularity quickly. This was also synonymous with the AOL running man. These were vastly used on computers that incorporated it into email services and anyplace the text box allowed you to type out a message with extra emotion and humour. From the compound word, emotion and icon, the user create emoticons with text that could be translated into an image within a document by arranging the characters to create the image.

Another type of emoticons used is called Kaomoji which is a Japanese style of emoticons that used grammatical punctuation and Japanese characters and are used the same way. These were inspired by Manga and facial expressions. Kaomoji are also not limited to just complex actions, objects or emotions; it is capable to express whole stories.

The Rise of the Teenage Market

In 1995, the Japanese technology market was flooded and standing out in the marketplace was key for survival. NTT DoCoMo was, at the time, being overtaken by Tokyo Telemessage and that need to invent something that was going to appeal to their new demographic. DoCoMo decided to gear their products more towards teenagers by branding their line with more of a cute and youthful appeal. In 1998, Shigetaka Kurita created the Emoji for their i-mode mobile Internet use.

An emoji is a pictorial code that represents emotion, action, a symbolic and figurative language in a miniature illustration. Emojis are mostly found on computers, text messaging and social media services. They express communication through visuals with little space used in format (approximately 12×12 pixels.) They are mostly known for expressing facial expressions which can be the difference between not getting a punch line or laughing out loud a lot like emoticons. The illustrations were first inspired by weather forecast symbols, Chinese characters, street signs and publications like Manga. Emojis are also fun to use. The word emoji means picture characters from the compound word from Kanji. Emoji is an imprint code that decodes from one computer to other into pre-loaded images either from a phone, software or chat box. This is also part of the reason why some graphics have slight variations depending on what device you are using, but the overall message is still clear with what intended to be spoken in image form. Not only they are apart of the Unicode system but the C-HTML code and the SI/SO escape sequences make it easier for devices to read.

Like the dingbat, the emoji is expanding its database with different contributors to the style, even in animation formats. Also, like its predecessor the emoticon, the emoji is mostly used to stop miscommunication in messages. When there’s a joke, there’s an emoji. When there’s is a statement of exaggeration, there’s also an emoji.

Should emojis be studied?
Emojis should be studied, it’s apart of the evolution of language. Iconography has changed so much over the years (technically centuries) over having a smiling face at the end of your messages. This can only develop into something else in the future.

January 2017, the emoji was actually studied at the University of Michigan analyzing what was the most used symbol distributed. The Face with the Tears of Joy was most used.

The growth of user experience design is apart of the reason why emojis are used daily. We are, as a society, growing our uses of technology more every day. The use of emojis reflects what society is right now how we’re interacting with each other through images and application devices rather than descriptive clever writing and good grammar. It’s basically a shift from typography style and verses to iconography and imagery in message writing.

Structurally emojis and emoticons have a language that is interpreted abstractly. The message will change from person to person. Which is either confusing or aggravating. Emojis can grow into a more structured grammatical language if we want it to or grow into something else that incorporates more interactions and human connection with better technology.

This might be the next step to something even bigger.


What Are Dingbats – WiseGeek
Where Did Emoji Come From – iEmoji
How Emoji Conquered the World – The Verge
Images by Under The Moonlight
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