Little Emoji, Big Story

Where do emojis come from?

Today, emojis help us share our deepest emotions, like ❤️, 😂, 😤, or more urgent thoughts like “🍣 or 🍔 tonight?” Emojis offer a way to add emotional subtext to a digital message that might otherwise feel 😔.

But where do emojis come from? Who makes them? Who decides which emojis are offered as options?

And how are emojis evolving to reflect the diversity of our global community? [The answer is: because of a group of passionate and dedicated people—and maybe even you!]

Origins of Emojis

In 1999, artist Shigetaka Kurita and his colleagues at Japanese telecom NTT DOCOMO, INC. developed one of the earliest emojis for mobile phones and pagers. The word emoji comes from the Japanese 絵 (“e,” picture), 文 (“mo,” write) and 字 (“ji,” character). The picture characters caught on quickly and spurred on the global trend of text messaging with emojis to communicate.

Graphic artist Shigetaka Kurita drew on manga and preexisting dingbats and glyphs to create the original 176 emoji for NTT DOCOMO mobile devices. Kurita worked within a 12 x 12 grid, dictated by the character constraints of the early “i-mode” mobile internet system. Many of today’s Unicode characters based on emojis can be traced back to Kurita’s original set. As for Kurita’s favorite? “The heart is my number-one favorite emoji, because among the various emoji, [its meaning] is very positive.” (See an early Japanese i-mode mobile phone in the museum’s mobile gallery in the Revolution exhibit here.) Emoji set credit: © NTT DOCOMO, INC.


A subset of the current 1,800 and growing Emoji List, v. 15.0. Credit:

NTT DOCOMO’s emojis are one of the earliest large sets of emojis. Previous sets existed in standalone programs, such as Microsoft’s Wingdings (a font invented in 1990) or the University of Illinois’ online learning system, PLATO, in the 1970s. Since 2010, the nonprofit Unicode Consortium ensures characters display in all languages, and its emoji subcommittee approves new emojis (a process open to anyone).

Meet the Emoji Changemakers

Creating new emojis to promote a more inclusive world has become a mission for a diverse group of passionate people. Would you like to join them? What would YOUR emoji be? 

Featured Artist: Yiying Lu

Designing emojis wasn’t my job, it wasn’t my career, but it became my calling.

— Yiying Lu

Yiying Lu, an artist and designer, discovered there was no emoji to represent her favorite food—a dumpling. She submitted her design to Unicode in January 2016. The dumpling emoji was approved as part of Unicode 10.0 in 2017 and added to Emoji 5.0 in 2017. Since then, Yiying created artworks and championed five more emojis, including chopsticks, a Chinese takeout box, fortune cookie, boba tea and peacock. Lu is cofounder of Emojination, an organization that designs and advocates for more inclusive emojis. She created the Computer History Museum’s “Little Emoji, Big Story” graphics!”

Yiying Lu (upper right) explains that originally her boba tea emoji was rejected by Unicode due to insufficient data showing its popularity. In 2018, she worked with data scientists Timothy Deng (upper left), Sujay Khandekar (lower left) and Ranjitha Kumar (lower right), who used Google Analytics to prove boba tea’s global popularity. The boba tea emoji was approved by Unicode in 2020.

🥡 Emoji Fun Fact: The Chinese take-out box isn’t from China or anywhere else in Asia. It’s an American invention by Frederick Weeks Wilcox, who patented a version in 1894 to hold oysters. In the 1970s, the company Fold-Pak put a pagoda on the side of it and the rest is history. Ironically, it’s used in many countries for take-out food but rarely seen in China or other Asian countries. Emojis, like all symbols, can have a multilayered history.

Breaking Down Racial Barriers

Our life’s mission is to help as many different people as possible truly express themselves, creating a sense of inclusiveness for all.

— Katrina Parrott, iDiversicons®

Katrina Parrott, an aerospace industry executive, was inspired by a conversation with her teenage daughter, Katy, in 2013. Together, they noticed that there was a serious lack of racial representation in emoji choices. To tackle the problem, Parrott assembled a small team and designed over 900 diverse emojis, eventually leading Unicode to adopt five skin tones.

A Food Emoji For Cultural Inclusion

The Arepa is one if not the most important meals in my country, Venezuela. Giving access to this emoji worldwide was an opportunity to expose my culture to other nations and a way for my country’s voice to be in anyone’s hands.

— Lumen Bigott

Lumen Bigott, a graphic designer, worked with fellow-Venezuelan Sebastian Delmont, a software developer, to create the first flatbread emoji, a staple food in Central and South America made of ground corn, called “arepa.” The arepa emoji was approved by Unicode in 2020.

How can YOU participate in “Little Emoji, BIG STORY”?

  1. Read a blog about a CHM event featuring people involved with the emoji story or watch the event video.
  2. Watch The Emoji Story documentary, now streaming on multiple channels.
  3. Learn more about emojis at
  4. Join to help make emoji approval a more inclusive process.
  5. Submit a new emoji proposal to the Unicode Consortium:
  6. Track real time emojis on Twitter at
Main image credit: © NTT DOCOMO, INC.


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