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Who invented the emojis?

Smiley News: Nicolas, the emoji landscape is often credited solely to Shigetaka Kurita's work in 1999. Yet, your pioneering contributions with the Smiley Company seem to have significantly shaped this landscape. How do you position your work in the history of emojis?

Nicolas Loufrani: Indeed, the narrative that solely credits Kurita overlooks the rich tapestry of the evolution of emojis. The Smiley Company's journey into what would become emojis began in 1996, with the licensing of a simple Smiley pictogram to Alcatel, predating NTT docomo and any other phone manufacturer. By 1997, I had embarked on creating a more nuanced form of digital expression, developing logograms intended to convey a broad spectrum of emotions and activities. By 1999, this effort resulted in the creation of 256 icons, with 42 emotions (moods) far surpassing Kurita's initial set in both scope, clarity and diversity; ours were categorised into 11 categories: animals, countries, celebrations, flags, food, fun, occupations, moods, planets, sports and zodiac. These were not merely pixel symbols but a comprehensive logographic system designed to be easily identifiable for rich communication.

Smiley News: Can you elaborate on the differences between your initial creations and Kurita's, and how they evolved?

Nicolas Loufrani: First I have to say I find Kurita’s emojis incredibly beautiful and they deserve their presence at the Museum of Modern art in New York. They are rendered within the constraints of a 12x12 pixel grid, a smart solution to the limitations of mobile technology at the time, focusing largely on symbols and activities. They were not initially designed to be sorted by categories but looking at them, we can identify icons falling into 8 categories: weather, symbols, places, sports, travel, objects, zodiac and only a handful of human emotions. This is Japanese industrial design at its best.

1999 NTT docomo emojis by Shigetaka Kurita at the MOMA in New York City 

Apple Macinstosh pictographs developed by Susan Kare

Sometimes I like to compare them to the pictographs developed by Susan Kare for the Apple Macintosh to illustrate that pixel icons used on technological devices, from watches to printers and washing machines, were something that dated back to earlier times, and expanded greatly in the 70’s.

In contrast, the Smiley Company's icons were designed from the outset to capture a wide array of human expressions and activities, utilising the full potential of digital colour displays and nascent 3D graphics. This broader emotional range and categorization laid the groundwork for what emojis would become, influencing not just the design but the very concept of digital communication. I think if you look at our 1999 Smileys, the emojis developed by Kurita the same year and the emojis launched on Apple smartphones from 2008, there is absolutely no doubt that the latter were influenced by my work, not Kurita’s. 

Look at the popular emojis shown on Emojipedia. These are the ones released by Apple for the first time in 2008

  • Apple first emojis in 2008, unknown artist

And these are the versions recently used by other major tech manufacturers or platforms like: 




Now, here again are some of the 170 emojis designed by Shigetaka Kurita and launched by NTT docomo in 1999:

Selection of NTT docomo emojis from 1999 

Smiley on an Alcatel cell phone in 1997, licensed by The Smiley Company

And here is the first Smiley launched on a cell phone licensed by the Smiley company to Alcatel in 1996. It was merely a pictogram to welcome users, by saying "it's me" and could not be sent from phone to phone:

Finally here are some of the first Smileys I created from 1997 for the Smiley company in a 3D style in yellow, with white light and orangey shadow effects and no black outline:

Some of the first Smileys created by Nicolas Loufrani in 1997

Apple first emojis in 2008, unknown artist

What do you think? I say without a shadow of a doubt that what people call emojis today look closer to my creation, not Kurita’s.

Smiley News: Yes, it really seems obvious. So how did your early work influence other tech companies like Apple?

Nicolas Loufrani: When Apple launched its first set of emojis with Softbank in Japan in 2008, the 471 icons included bore the influence of the broad categorisation and expressive depth we had established for ten years. This set covered a range of 77 emotions represented by round, yellow icons with a white light and orangey shadow effect and no black outline, some in cat or monkey form. It was close to my original 1999 set, but their traits were a bit different, inspired by Japanese manga and animé culture, notably the open mouth with a white teeth line. And in some cases the addition of eyebrows.

Consider that by 2003, there were 887 original Smileys in the Smiley dictionary and the following 23 categories of icons:

Celebration, celebrities, clothes, fancy, flags, flowers, food, in action, instruments, moods, mood with hands, nations, nature, numbers, objects, occupations, religion, science, signs, sports, transportation, weather, zodiac.

Most notably, it included 130 human emotions in the Moods category.

Over two years we had doubled the number of categories and icons. At which point I decided to propose a new icon each day.

The reason why the Smiley dictionary was in constant evolution is that I could see how positively the public was reacting to what I had created. I included a possibility for people to vote for their favourite icons, I was checking the results on a daily basis as well as looking at which ones were used the most and reading and responding myself to all the comments fans were emailing us.

I was really proud of the enthusiasm I had generated, it is really the positive reaction of the public that encouraged me to continue and to develop more of what they wanted. This is also why we made our graphic style evolve over the years, and still continue to do so to create the cool products our customers love.

Variety of icons from multiple categories under the letter A, in the Smiley dictionary.

SmileyWorld last toolbar

The Smiley toolbar we launched had thousands of icons, sorted in dozens of categories. It enabled the inserting of our digital stickers into any digital text as a still and in animated form.

Smiley News: Were you upset when Apple launched its emojis?

Nicolas Loufrani: I would definitely have been very happy to collaborate with Apple on their set. It was their choice to develop something that was proprietary to them, and as a creator and brand owner I totally understand their position. From the outset, the Smiley Company recognized the potential of digital icons to transcend traditional communication barriers. In the early days, our focus was on licensing our icons to consumer product brands and phone manufacturers like Nokia, Alcatel, Motorola, or Samsung. Our icons were initially used in a monochromatic pixel form, as screen decor on devices that predated the modern smartphone. As technology evolved, so did our approach. We introduced coloured versions of these icons, which were promoted as gifs from a website we called the official Smiley dictionary. I have to say Apple and then Unicode made my project to build a universal language much bigger and took it to another level, with a technology and network effect I did not have, they made my dream possible. It is important to make sure my initial contribution to this project, which represented thousands of hours of work is  recognised. That is why I am happy to share our history, and our archives, and compare them to emojipedia's archives for the first time, so everyone has the opportunity to understand my creative work and my thought process, and see that my contribution has been instrumental to the birth of the emojis people know and use. 

To my understanding, Kurita and NTT docomo didn't set out with the intention to create a universal language in the way emojis have come to be recognized today. In a 2016 interview with Vice magazine, Kurita himself mentioned that his creations were meant for visual communication, not to establish a new language.

They also did not put significant focus on conveying a wide spectrum of emotions, which was very important to me. Human language is about words but also about non verbal cues such as facial expressions, hand gestures and tone of voice, I spent a lot of time to work on expressing these and came up with hundreds of facial expressions with and without hand gestures.

NTT Docomo did not explore as much as me the idea of conveying many emotional states in digital conversations. By 2008, they had 22 eyes and mouth designs, still in pixel form while I had created 130 in Smiley form. 10 of Apple's original set of emojis used NTT Docomo's inspired eyes and mouth. These were eyes shaped like arrows, up like ^ ^  or convergent like > < . They are quintessentially Japanese, inspired by Kaomoji and very Kawai (cute). This is a style I clearly did not come up with, even if I had icons conveying a similar meaning. They are the best common denominator I can see between these two brands and their respective projects. But they are not yellow and round and not the emojis people have been using since the introduction of iPhones, and this is why I believe that from an artistic and a conceptual point of view I contributed as much, if not more than Kurita to the creation of the emojis.

22 NTT docomo emotions in 2008

Their pictograms were exclusive to NTT docomo's iMode, limiting their use to internal communication among its users. This contrasts with our approach at the Smiley Company, where we aimed for widespread application across devices, language and emotional expressiveness from the start. NTT docomo has obviously more status than us, being a technological powerhouse and the leading cell phone operator in Japan, with their significant reach through millions of iMode phones giving gravitas to their contribution, especially from a technological point of view. Yet Apple’s introduction of emojis in Japan was a pivotal moment, blending the iconic Smiley graphic emoticons imagery we made familiar worldwide with the stylistic nuances of Japanese animé and manga. They created something new and unique, and the art director behind this, to the best of my knowledge remains unknown, while their work is really pivotal and had a considerable impact on global culture. Bear in mind Apple's first emojis were not launched with NTT Docomo but with Softbank, their Japanese competitor.

This fusion set the stage for the emojis we recognize today, marking a departure towards a more global and expressive digital language. It’s because the launch happened in Japan, that the Japanese word, dating back to the Edo era (17th century) became popular globally, instead of the English word emoticons, which dominated until around 2012, or the even more common word pictograph... and obviously, Apple is an American brand but in that case Japanese prevailed . The fact the set could originally only be used in Japan created hype and demand, as people in the rest of the world had to use apps to crack their phone and release the set, which would then only be used among a community of people who had cracked their iPhone. It was unintentional, but genius marketing, as we love scarcity and a sense of belonging to a unique tribe. It created a buzz and an expectation, until Apple released them officially in other countries. 

Smiley News: You’ve described the creation of a universal language as a bold step. How did you envision this affecting communication?

Nicolas Loufrani: Our vision was to enhance digital communication in a way that traditional ASCII emoticons, constrained by the limits of a keyboard, could not. The advent of ASCII emoticons did improve email and chat room dialogue since 1982 when Scott Fahlman defined a protocol for using the three original ones  :-)    :-(     ;-) 

But their usage was often cumbersome, requiring readers to tilt their heads to decipher the intended expression. We proposed having a full dictionary of them on our website. Having reviewed and collected hundreds of existing ones found on the web, removed their - sign for the nose, that our original Smiley did not have… et voila :)

  • ASCII emoticons section in the Smiley dictionary in 2004

The official Smiley dictionary by Nicolas Loufrani in 2001

While most of the Western world was using these sideways ASCII emoticons,  Japan had developed in the 80s another style, also using text characters, but that could be read normally. These were known as Kaomoji, the style focused a lot on the expression of the eyes rather than the mouth and used parenthesis to show the shape of the head as in ( >_< ). It seems to me several of Kurita's emojis were inspired by the Kaomoji culture, but without the key element of the round shape face. And I am guessing Kaomoji might also have influenced Apple.

Recognising the limitations of ASCII emoticons, my father and I initiated the next bold step towards a universal language. This involved creating an expanded alphabet of upright, colourful Smiley fonts that could be easily downloaded and used across various digital platforms. For the first time we offered with the official Smiley dictionary a web platform translating the old school language into the new universal language.

Recognising these limitations, my father and I initiated the next bold step towards a universal language. This involved creating an expanded alphabet of upright, colourful Smiley fonts that could be easily downloaded and used across various digital platforms. For the first time we offered with the official Smiley dictionary a web platform translating the old school language into the new universal language.

Smiley News: How did the concept of the official Smiley dictionary and the creation of gifs fit into this vision?

Nicolas Loufrani: The idea behind the Smiley dictionary was to offer a comprehensive resource that not only categorised icons by emotion, activity, objects and more, but also alphabetically, from A to Z. This wasn’t just about providing a set of gifs; it was about laying the groundwork for a real language that could be universally understood and shared. These Smiley gifs were designed to be compatible with any computer and could be exchanged across all email services or instant messengers. By calling it a dictionary and organising it in such a manner, we aimed to highlight our intent to develop a genuine form of language, one that could enrich digital communication far beyond the capabilities of traditional text. We said it was “The birth of a universal language” and made it our slogan. Wishful thinking… yet visionary.

Smiley News: Looking back, how do you view the impact of these innovations on digital communication?

Nicolas Loufrani: The introduction of a more intuitive, expressive form of digital communication through the original Smileys and the subsequent development of our Smiley dictionary were significant milestones. They not only facilitated more engaging interactions across digital platforms but also marked the beginning of what has become a universal language that paved the way for emojis. This evolution from simple ASCII emoticons to a rich lexicon of digital graphic emoticons underscores the transformative impact of our work on global communication. We're proud to have played a part in this ongoing journey towards making digital expressions as nuanced and meaningful as face-to-face conversations.

Smiley News: How did the process of emoji standardisation influence the global adoption of these icons?

Nicolas Loufrani: Unicode and its members—Apple, Meta, Google, Microsoft and others— truly scaled my vision of a universal language, allowing emojis to be sent and received across devices as seamlessly as any alphabetical font. This technological leap, which I've openly lauded in several interviews, democratised the use of emojis from 2010, bridging communication gaps across the globe. They are doing an incredible job. Yet, a crucial distinction remains between the original Smileys we've crafted and the standardised emojis by Unicode.

Our original Smileys, conceived as an artistic endeavour, continue to flourish beyond the digital canvas, finding their place on products and through promotional campaigns, unrestricted by the confines of a standard protocol. This freedom has even seen some of our sports Smiley icons become part of street culture, notably in collaboration with the US brand Market, showcasing the broad cultural resonance of our creations.

Smiley basketball by Market

Gmail first set of emojis compared to the contemporary Human form emojis 

While our intent was to cultivate a logographic system akin to Kanji or Hieroglyphs, defined historically by centralised authorities, Unicode has taken up a similar mantle for emojis. Somehow like traditional scripts, dictated a long time ago by states or religions, Unicode operates as a supra-national body, standardising emoji use worldwide and making pivotal decisions like emoji racialization and the introduction of new icons annually based on trending words. 

Our choice for the original Smileys to don yellow was deliberate, aiming for a race and gender-neutral palette that symbolises unity and universality—the colour of the sun, the source of all life. This principle underpinned our approach to embodying emotions that resonate universally, a philosophy that seems to have subtly influenced the emoji world, where the default for emotions is predominantly yellow. 

The evolution of emojis design, from Gmail’s initial primary-coloured squares to more relatable shapes, and the diversification beyond mere facial expressions to include a full range of human activities and attributes, underscores the expansive nature of this digital language. 

Yet, it’s evident, particularly through icons like the now-iconic blue tears we introduced, that our original artistic direction has left an indelible mark on the emojis lexicon.

First blue tears on SmileyWorld

Smiley's iconic eyes and mouth distinguishes our icons from others on the market

In creating these digital expressions, I often turned to the mirror, acting out emotions to capture their essence for our digital Smileys. This hands-on approach extended to conceptualising more complex emotions, like love or coolness, using visual metaphors like hearts for eyes or sunglasses.

This methodology not only enriched the digital dialogue but also introduced a playful, fantasy and cartoonish aesthetic that characterises our original Smileys, using our iconic eyes and mouth trademark on everything from a clock, a basketball, to an apple or a cloud, distinguishing them from the more literal representations seen in current categories of emojis depicting the reality, and making them easier to use than ours.

Nowadays, Unicode emojis can be sorted into 10 categories of icons, with a new large one called "other." There are 1474 unique characters or logographs and with their colour variations the total comes up to 3782 individual icons. 

The process we developed for sorting these icons, whether by category or alphabetically, was designed to simplify digital communication, enabling users to convey a wide array of concepts and emotions with ease. Our original Smileys, like those depicting activities, nature, or objects, were crafted to integrate the iconic Smiley features, marrying conceptual depth with visual appeal in a way that's uniquely ours.

Today, emojis stand as a global digital language, structured and disseminated by the Unicode Consortium, reaching billions of devices worldwide. In contrast, our original Smileys continue to thrive as unrestricted art, inspiring consumer products, live events, and even animated characters, reflecting the ongoing evolution of our creative vision into new realms of expression and storytelling.

NewMoji Extreme 3D Art

Smiley News: How do you see the future of emojis and digital communication evolving from here?

Nicolas Loufrani: The future of emojis, as I see it, is about further enriching this logographic system to more accurately and expressively reflect the full range of human experience. Through projects like NewMoji, we are exploring advanced graphic techniques, aiming to introduce a level of detail and expressiveness previously unseen in digital communication. 

We are not only beyond the limitations of ASCII emoticons and early pixel-based designs but even modernising the art direction of my original Smileys or Unicode emojis, to create a more nuanced and sophisticated visual language.

Smiley News: Reflecting on your journey, how do you view your impact on the world of emojis?

Nicolas Loufrani: Reflecting on this journey, it's clear that the Smiley Company has played a foundational role in transforming digital communication. From the first logograms introduced on mobile phones to the sophisticated emojis used today, our work has consistently pushed the boundaries of how emotions and ideas are expressed digitally. As we continue to innovate from an artistic point of view rather than a technological point of view, our focus remains on enhancing this universal art form bringing people together, ensuring that images remain an integral tool for communication in the digital age.