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The Story of Emoji

Gavin Lucas explores the history of the tiny picture phenomenon

by Cajsa Carlson
on 04 March 2016

As a former senior writer at Creative Review and the co-founder of London-based illustration agency Outline Artists (and CH contributor), Gavin Lucas’ professional career bridges communication and illustration. That combination makes him well-suited for his latest project: the new book “The Story of Emoji.” The thoroughly-researched, entertaining tome traces the history of everyone’s favorite communication enhancer, looking at early predecessors, like typeset ornaments, through to more recent ones like emoticons and kaomoji. Lucas himself started using emojis around 2010 or 2011, before they were standard on mobile phone keyboards. “I downloaded an app which allowed you to enable the emoji keyboard and use emoji in text messages. I remember doing that because I felt it was absolutely imperative that I should be able to send tiny images of hamburgers, pints of beer and smiley piles of poo in text messages and emails,” he tells CH.

A conversation with Ali Gitlow, a commissioning editor at Prestel Publishing, led to the idea of an emoji book. “Ali’s one of those super-switched-on people you dream of working on projects with. We both agreed it felt like a great time to write and publish the book on how emoji came into being and basically took over the world. I’ve been interested in typography for a long time, and I’d been thinking about emoji as a kind of fusion of dingbat typefaces and clip art and so thought it would be interesting to contextualize emoji as a digital typeface. I’d also been noticing a rise in projects that were exploring, celebrating and leveraging emoji in some way,” Lucas says. "I guess the whole point of my book was to document the genesis and evolution of emoji before the story gets too complicated or the power of emoji as we currently know them becomes diluted."

“The Story of Emoji” features plenty of artists who have used emoji in their work, and also takes an exhaustive look at how emoji are used for (among a million other things) ad campaigns, design projects, bank apps, apparel and music videos (like the unofficial lyric video for "Drunk in Love" that went viral to Katy Perry's official one for "Roar"). “I think the main reason that emoji are cropping up in projects by brands, advertisers and designers is because they’re a fun way to connect with a particular youthful demographic,“ Lucas says.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the book is the section in which Lucas reached out to a number of creatives, including illustrators Rob Flowers, Crispin Finn, Lucy Vigrass and Jan Kallwejt, and got them to design their own emoji. “One of my favorite responses is a 'fingers crossed emoji' submitted by artist David Henckel. Why there isn’t one already in the standard set seems totally crazy,” says Lucas. (His own dream emoji is “Awesome Sauce—a bottle of ketchup with an A for Awesome on the label. And I’d like a much bigger, double-patty burger emoji too!”)

Not surprisingly, Lucas doesn’t see our interest in emoji waning anytime soon. “We’re all using them. Emoji is, according to one university professor of linguistics, the fastest growing language in the history of the human race. And in the increasingly digital world in which we live and communicate, it’s not hard to understand why: emoji make short-form digital communication more powerful, and help us emote more easily when face-to-face signifiers of mood and tone (such as facial expressions, hand gestures, body language and tone of voice) aren’t present. One study (OK, so it was commissioned by a dating agency) even suggests that people that use emoji have better sex lives than those that don't. Thanks emoji.”

The Story of Emoji” is now available in the UK via Amazon for £14, and will release in the US next month.

Inside spreads courtesy of Gavin Lucas; all other book images by Cajsa Carlson

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