From 3,521 to Infinity: The Open Emoji Research

  • Table with two folders „Comparative sign index“ Form & Meaning by Edgar Walthert. Links: Form, Rechts: Bedeutung.
  • Table with Memorycards, with signs and symbols taken from different pictorial systems.

As of 2021, there are over 3,000 unified emoji characters in existence. Since 2009, the Unicode Consortium has designated a Unicode number (e.g. “U+1F92F”) with an attendant description (“exploding head”) for each emoji. In this way, emojis can be displayed on almost any Unicode-supported terminal device, even if the emojis differ in their graphic design. This universalisation of the characters has contributed to their success.

But the question remains: what is included as a character in the overall emoji catalogue and what is not?
Agreement on the look of new emojis is always also a process of negotiation about the visibility and representation of things: animals, fruit and vegetables, sports, but equally emotions, minority groups or gender identities. How and whether skin colour, age, illness, female/male/diverse, housing, food or sexual acts are represented is also a sociopolitical issue.
How does the selection process actually work and who exactly is the Unicode Consortium?

With contributions from:
Moritz Appich, Johannes Bergerhausen, Jonas Grünwald, Juli Gudehus, Ilka Helmig, Bruno Jacoby, Lilian Stolk, Edgar Walthert

  • Open Emoji Research, overview with four tables and several wall installations.

From Japan around the World: Set of Emojis by Shigetaka Kurita and others

The word emoji is a compound of the Japanese words “e” for image and “moji” for character. The emojis used around the world today have Japanese roots. Some of their features still recall manga and internet culture in 1990s’ Japan. For example, the depiction of faces to express feelings – such as the large bead of sweat on the brow. Kaomoji emoticons are considered the precursor of the first emojis. In translation: facial characters. They were part of the Japanese forum and chat culture of the 1990s at the point when the internet began to burgeon as a mass medium. Since there were no standardised emojis, internet users combined existing letters, numbers and characters to create new kaomoji. (^o^)/(^^) stands for an enthusiastic “high five” or .(¬_¬”) for “unamused face”.

Around the turn of the millennium, Japanese mobile phone companies became interested in developing “real” emoticons. In 1999, the interface designer Shigetaka Kurita (b. 1972), an employee of NTT DOCOMO, INC., developed a set of 176 emojis with his colleagues. They were based on a rough grid of only 12 x 12 pixels. Facial expressions, objects or parts of the body are thus depicted in a very simplified, reduced way. Therein lies their precise quality. NTT DOCOMO’s motifs still form part of the international emoji catalogue today. A closer look reveals their roots in Japanese culture.

Emoji Voting Booth by Lilian Stolk

Although emojis are used by 92% of Internet users worldwide, only a handful of specialists control the selection made available to them. Imagine if only a couple of people were deciding which words we could use? The Dutch emoji expert Lilian Stolk thinks that should change, that’s why she developed the Emoji Voter app.

An average of 243 new emojis are added every year, but which ones? That decision is made by the Unicode Consortium, an organization that digitizes languages. Anyone can submit suggestions for new emojis, but the final vote is made by the Unicode jury in cooperation with companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook – companies that already have a strong influence over our digital life. How is it possible that this small organization has so much influence over our digital expressions?

This process needs to be democratized. It is time for us emoji users to make our voices heard and the Emoji Voter app is the tool to amplify them.

Emoji Voter by Lilian Stolk, that gives people the chance to vote for new emojis.

Signs as Chameleons: Juli Gudehus’s Genesis

“Genesis” is the name given in the Bible to the creation of the world. Juli Gudehus visually transfers the creation story via her collection of signs. In the process, the logos and pictograms leave their origins behind for a moment and take on a new meaning. The signs become chameleons. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – Juli Gudehus’s pictorial sign language is surprisingly easy to understand.

The Berlin graphic designer Juli Gudehus (b. 1968) began collecting pictograms for the most diverse purposes during her studies. The collection, arranged alphabetically according to concepts, now fills entire bookshelves. The folders contain cut-out company logos, pictograms from Otto Neurath’s ISOTYPE, symbols such as the “peace” sign and even a few of Wolfgang Schmidt’s Lebenszeichen (Signs of Life). With the help of her collection, Gudehus developed the work exhibited here, Genesis, in 1992 from a seminar paper on „Typografie ohne Buchstaben“ (Typography without Letters). The sheets also chronicle the intermediate steps in which she combined the various characters to test their suitability.

Preliminary studies to Genesis by Juli Gudehus from 1993. Collage from sketches and photocopys.

Welcome, global Baby! The Elephant’s Memory

Writing retrospectively about his Elephant’s Memory, the artist Timothée Ingen-Housz (b. 1971) states:

The Elephant’s Memory emerged as if from a febrile dream. It was 1993 and I had just returned from a trip to Egypt. In my dream I saw hundreds of hieroglyphic signs jumping out into an endless white space. I asked myself: would it be possible to link the signs together through a system? And in such a way that all viewers could decipher them, regardless of their native language? A playful sentence structure should link the graphic elements into clusters of meaning. These could be read and written in any direction. It would be fun, beautiful and pretty weird. The internet was just taking off and we were still surfing with the Mosaic browser at that time. We were full of hope that we would soon be part of a new planetary society. And I wanted to create a communication system that billions of people could experiment with. It wasn’t the old fantasy of a universal world language – it was an enigmatic toy for the newborn global baby. A gift.”

Visual language „Elephant’s Memory“ by Timothée Ingen-Housz. The center shows a screen with animated examples of the language.

snake, sun, cloud, hand, triangle

Moritz Appich, Bruno Jacoby and Jonas Grunwald, »snake, sun, cloud, hand, triangle«, 2020. Implementation of Hand: Corinne Riepert.

In typography, a ligature describes the combination of several letters to form a new glyph. F and i become ‘fi’, f and l become ‘fl’. In the presented work »snake, sun, cloud, hand, triangle«, a ligature occurs through the features of its characters: the hand grabs the snake and the triangle interrupts the light of the sun.

Installation view of the work snake, sun, cloud, hand, triangle
Foto vom Ausstellungsaufbau der Arbeit


Johannes Bergerhausen and Ilka Helmig »Proto-«, 2020

A visual explanation of the difference between pictogram, ideogram and phonogram, from cuneiform characters to swirling sounds and traffic signs.

Through the process of speaking, air is pressed through the lips and released into the environment in the form of structured vortices of microdroplets. Scientists have found that the vortex shapes made by spoken sounds are reproducible.

Drawing by Ilka Helmig, ACH
Drawing by Ilka Helmig Souncloud o
Drawing by Ilka Helmig Souncloud p
Drawing by Ilka Helmig Souncloud x