MoMA has announced the addition of NTT DOCOMO’s original set of 176 emoji to its collection. Developed under the supervision of Shigetaka Kurita and released for cell phones in 1999, these 12 x 12 pixel humble masterpieces of design planted the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language.

Kurita’s 176 emoji (picture characters) were instantly successful and copied by rival companies in Japan. Twelve years later, when a far larger set was released for Apple’s iPhone, emoji burst into a new form of global digital communication.

Beginning in the 1980s, computer users in the West began composing emoticons to create simple faces out of preexisting glyphs — the ubiquitous smiley face 🙂 is an example. In Japan, the larger character set necessitated by the language allowed for even more complicated images, giving rise to kaomoji, or picture faces, such as the now common shruggy: ̄\_(ツ)_/ ̄. When combined with text, these simple images allow for more nuanced intonation. Filling in for body language, emoticons, kaomoji, and emoji reassert the human in the deeply impersonal, abstract space of electronic communication.


The release of NTT DOCOMO’s emoji contributed to a radical alteration in the way the Japanese communicated through mobile phones. Working within the software and hardware limitations of the late 1990s, Kurita created his emoji on a small grid of 12 x 12 pixels. Drawing on sources as varied as manga, Zapf dingbats, and commonly used emoticons, Kurita designed a set of 176 emoji that included illustrations of weather phenomena, pictograms like the ♥, and a range of expressive faces. While successful, emoji remained a largely Japanese concern until 2010, when they were translated into Unicode. This development meant that a user in Japan could send an emoji to a user in France with the same basic image being represented on both ends. Google included emoji in its Gmail as early as in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2011, when Apple added emoji functionality to its iOS messaging app, that the emoji explosion began.

MoMA’s collection is filled with examples of design innovations that radically altered our world, from telephones to personal computers to the @ symbol. Today’s emoji (the current Unicode set numbers nearly 1,800) have evolved far beyond Kurita’s original 176 designs for NTT DOCOMO. However, the DNA for today’s set is clearly present in Kurita’s humble, pixelated, seminal emoji.


all images © MoMA