Though they have an undeniable visual character, it is important to keep in mind that Kurita’s emoji are considered to be design rather than art (the original emoji now find themselves in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design). Unlike traditional art forms, the significance of emoji in our culture stems from their design, their built-in purpose to effectively communicate. When looking at art, we’re accustomed to the idea that the viewer is at least partially, if not totally, responsible for the making of meaning. Emoji, on the other hand, were expressly designed to lack this degree of ambiguity, instead filling in the gaps left by text’s lack of efficiency (DoCoMo emoji were used to deliver weather reports and drive attention to businesses, for example), as well as intonation and gestures. When we select an emoji on a touchscreen keyboard, we know that the receiver will understand the image’s meaning. (This is not to say that all emoji have a single, literal meaning all the time.) In this way, emoji take on the character of a language—albeit one that exists exclusively in visual form—yet they’re able to communicate outside of the specificities of spoken languages.
The ability of emoji to be understood across devices, platforms, or spoken languages makes them an especially useful tool in this age of global communication. For example, Sara Dean, a professor in the graduate design program at California College of the Arts, is working on a project to develop emoji for disaster and emergency response. She notes that social media channels have become go-to platforms for reporting and discussing natural disaster and emergency situations—as forums where communities can have real-time discussions and individuals can report their statuses with a geo-tag—and yet despite this, there are no standard icons or a lexicon for communities and emergency responders to use in the wake of a disaster.
Earthquakes, in particular, are one of the three natural disasters Dean feels should be developed into a Unicode emoji as soon as possible. “The hashtag earthquake in Japanese was one of the top used hashtags of 2015. There was just an earthquake in New Zealand, there was also a very large earthquake in Italy, and all of those three conversations are happening locally in the language of their country or translated to English,” Dean explains. “We don’t have a way currently to have a global conversation about the impact of earthquakes.” Designing an emoji that can translate the word “earthquake” in all its linguistic forms to a single, universal symbol, Dean believes, would facilitate both more efficient on-the-ground responses to emergencies as well as clearer communication surrounding these emergencies. “As our climate is changing, these are conversations we should be able to have globally through social media without being hindered by the many languages that we speak,” Dean says. “The emoji that we’re developing are meant to cultivate that conversation.”