Emojis: Transcending borders through a universal visual language

Before the explosion of Emoji – now the fastest growing language in the world (over 6 billion sent every day), evolving faster than ancient forms of communications including hieroglyphics – came Smileys!

Smileys were unequivocally the first graphic emoticons, designed in 1997 to evolve the way people were using text-based ASCII emoticons into Smileys that actually looked more human and made sense. These would be the first portrait emoticons, a shortcut to convey emotion and transcend borders in their simplest form; understandable by everyone regardless of language, dialect, accent, gender, colour or culture.

When considering communication today, we do so on two levels. Firstly verbal communication consisting of words making sentences and secondly non-verbal communication. The latter consists of body posture, facial expressions, hand gesture, tone of voice and possibly energy.

My idea was for Smileys to not only enhance text and bring emotions onto a screen but also to become a new universal form of writing. A real logographic system like Chinese Hanzi, Japanese Kanji or ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, however unlike Kanji or Hanzi, I wanted to create something easily recognisable and universally understood by people of all ages and from all cultures. In the era of handwriting, a system like Smileys wouldn’t have been efficient, but with digital communications it was suddenly possible and easy to insert them into any message.

My simple idea of creating a visual language quickly exploded when Apple launched them on their smartphones in Japan in 2007, and then Unicode (the consortium of major digital and tech companies) standardised the system and promoted it universally under the name Emoji – a Japanese word meaning pictograph. Its incredible adoption rate and speed of evolution soared from there, as it was embraced by the biggest tech companies in the world and taken to the masses.

So what I started as an artistic movement, evolved into emoji and now we have The Emoji Movie, the purest commercialisation of the idea I had 20 years ago. While inventions are considered patents, Smileys are a design process that doesn’t belong in the world of inventions, but instead in the world of art. This is how The Smiley Company created a business model from the concept, because we didn’t have the technology to evolve the property in the communications world, so we did it in the real world.

Whilst some people criticise emojis because they consider they will make our language poorer, I personally do not agree. Emojis are used together with our alphabet and that makes our communication richer, because we learn to use different forms of writing. By knowing what form of language to use and when to use it, this can only develop our emotional intelligence

So, what’s the future of Smiley and Emoji? As the world becomes increasingly more obsessed with Emojis, and we approach the world premier of Sony’s Emoji Movie, has the point been missed and meant that we’ve forgotten the real meaning and purpose behind them? Or does it bring the emoji concept to children, the next generation who will grow totally fluent in both alphabetical and logographic systems?


Like this contributor? Find out more about him below, and read up on his other blog here

Nicolas Loufrani is the CEO and Creative Visionary behind The Smiley Company, one of the world’s leading licensing companies. His father Franklin created and trademarked the Smiley face in 1972. In 1995 Nicolas joined The Smiley Company and transformed the business into a strategically driven fashion lifestyle brand, rather than the traditional ‘nuts and bolts’ consumer merchandising licensing model that he inherited from his father. He achieved this by taking a unique design approach and placing the businesses emphasis on product creativity and the evolution of his London based design studio into the creative hub of the business. In the time since The Smiley Company has created truly innovative and inspirational products that allow Smiley to co-create with the most prestigious licensees, retailers and brands in the world to day.

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