A journey through emoticons

Lab Reports, Timelines


In this lab report I’ll be exploring the history of emoticons, from their early constructions to the version of emoticons we know and use today – emojis. As our world grows more technologically advanced, our methods of communication have had to adapt with the times. Communication technology has grown to help bridge the gaps between geographically dispersed peoples brought on by globalization. With modern forms of communication technology, a new way of conveying non-textual cues was in order, resulting in the birth of emoticons. Emoticons can convey nonverbal cues, such as emotion and body language, wherever written text is lacking. They are often used in conjunction with written text, or sometimes as a replacement.

There has been recent discourse around the emojis of today that their use is seen as ‘childish’ (Webster, 2014) and ‘leading to the decline of literacy’ (Pernice, 2015). This lab report seeks to understand the origins of emoticons and how their place in our history of written communication came to be. It begs the question – are emoticons a frivolous decorum or an essential aspect to modern communication?


To explore the history of emoticons over time, a timeline visualization was created in TimelineJS. TimelineJS is an open-source tool from Knight Lab that creates visual and interactive storytelling for a timeline of events. Data was manually inputted into a Google spreadsheet template provided by TimelineJS and linked to the timeline visualization. This data included dates, written descriptions and images for the historical events selected.

The primary data points were collected from three key sources. I first consulted the App Institute’s History of Emojis and then corroborated this timeline with “A Systematic Review of Emoji: Current Research and Future Perspectives” (2019) and “From Zapf to Kurita: how emojis conquered our world one symbol at a time” (2019). Additional sources were consulted to elaborate on findings (see References).

The images that were chosen to depict the history of emoticons were selected to show the evolution from very rudimentary constructions of emoticons to the more complex and expressive emojis that we see today.


Discovering what is possible with typography

The earlier constructions of emoticons were centered around discovering what could be made possible with type. Puck Magazine was credited for printing the first documented emoticons in 1881, in what they called ‘Typographical Art’. They depicted emotions of joy, melancholy, indifference and astonishment using common punctuation marks to construct emotive faces. There was no context to these emoticons, as they were simply deemed “artistic achievements” (Ptasyznski et al., 2011).

‘Typographical Art’ – Puck Magazine

Further “artistic achievements” in typography would be reached when renowned type designer Hermann Zapf created the ITC Zapf Dingbats typeface for computers in 1978 (“From Zapf to Kurita”, 2019). This typeface was a breakthrough in innovation as it was the first of its kind to be entirely composed of symbols to display signage and ornamentation. Zapf Dingbats would go on to be adopted by Apple Laserwriters and become the basis of Microsoft’s Wingdings typeface. It would later be included in Unicode 1.0 Standards, marking its significance.

Setting emoticons in context

Emoticons were first documented to depict tone in 1982 at Carnegie Mellon. Scott Falham, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon at the time, introduced emoticons (by using punctuation marks) to Carnegie Mellon’s online messaging boards to denote the tone of peoples’ posts, then dubbed ‘joke markers’ (“The Invention of Emoticons”, 2014). In 1997, Emoticons moved away from simple punctuation marks to more developed pictures when instant messaging boards like AIM came onto the scene. The popularity of AIM also brought wider adoption and familiarity with using emoticons to further convey meaning.

AIM Emoticons

The ‘Post-PC era’ of instantaneous communication

The emergence of cellphones and texting made communication more instantaneous than ever before. With this rapid form of written communication, developing visual cues to convey the meaning behind texts was critical – thus, leading to the creation of the ‘emoji’ for mobile use. In 1999, Japanese telecom company NTT DOCOMO released the original 176 emoji set created by designer Shigetaka Kurita (“MoMA Highlights”, 2019).

Shigetaka Kurita, NTT DOCOMO. Emoji (original set of 176). 1998–99

The rest of the timeline brings us to the last ~10 years, a story that many of us are familiar with. Apple released their own version of emojis and emojis have carved out their own place next to the traditional keyboard in our phones. In the history of emoticon visualization, emojis have grown more sophisticated in their visual design over the last 10 years. In 2015, Apple makes a monumental decision to add skin-tone differentiators in an effort to relate emojis to a more realistic human experience. Though the history of emoticons is far from over, the timeline of this story ends in 2015 with the Oxford Dictionary announcement that the 2015 Word of the Year was the “face with tears of joy” emoji. This announcement, while controversial, symbolized the enduring nature of emoticons, as these symbols will likely continue to have a place next to written text in our history of communication.

Apple’s 2015 Emoji Set with Skin-Differentiators


This story provides a small snippet of the history of emoticons, and therefore is limited in the breadth that it covers. There are also limitations to the amount of scholarly research that was consulted on the topic. Future direction of this project could also expand the scope from just emoticons, but to be inclusive of all the ways in which we communicate meaning through visualizations on messaging platforms (memes and GIFS come to mind). Time constraints limited my ability to explore all of the capabilities of TimelineJS, but future direction could also include further exploration into adding eras (which might be depicted as the headlines outlined in my findings section) and using more interactive visuals aside from just images.


Bai, Q., Dan, Q., Mu, Z. & Yang, M. (2019). A Systematic Review of Emoji: Current Research and Future Perspectives. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02221

From Zapf to Kurita: how emojis conquered our world one symbol at a time. (2019). Typeroom. https://www.typeroom.eu/article/zapf-kurita-how-emojis-conquered-our-world-one-symbol-time

Haber, M. (2015). Should Grown Men Use Emoji? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/03/fashion/mens-style/should-grown-men-use-emoji.html

MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art. (2019). https://www.moma.org/collection/works/196070

Ptaszynski, M. & Rzepka, R. & Araki, K. & Momouchi, Y. (2011). Research on Emoticons: Review of the Field and Proposal of Research Framework. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259103548_Research_on_Emoticons_Review_of_the_Field_and_Proposal_of_Research_Framework

The Invention of Emoticons. (2014). W3.org. https://www.w3.org/webat25/thewebbyawards/the-invention-of-the-emoticon

The History of Emojis (n.d). App Institute. https://appinstitute.com/history-of-emojis/

Webster, D. (2014). Adults who use emoji should grow up. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/18/adults-emoji-grow-up-emoticons-teenagers