CNN  — 

When Shigetaka Kurita created the first emoji in 1999, he had to work within a grid measuring 12 by 12 pixels.

That’s a total of 144 dots, or 18 bytes of data, meaning that the Japanese designer’s complete set of 176 pictograms took up just over 3 kilobytes. A minuscule dose of information, but an enormous amount of meaning.

“From a design perspective, I find them incredible,” said Jesse Reed, co-founder of Standards Manual, the publisher behind a forthcoming book on the original emoji set, in an email interview.

The book is titled simply, "Emoji."

“If you were given the challenge of translating 176 ideas, including people, places, emotions and concepts into 12-bit symbols, all within 5 weeks time, most designers would faint at the idea.”

Pictograms and manga

The word emoji comes from the Japanese 絵 (“e,” picture), 文 (“mo,” write) and 字 (“ji,” character). Japanese characters, or “kanji,” are largely based on Chinese ideograms, meaning the language’s writing system is already highly pictorial.

“Both emoji and kanji are ideograms, but I did not find inspiration for designing emoji in the kanji,” he said in an email interview. “In creating emoji, I found inspiration in pictograms, manga, and all sorts of other sources.”

original emoji7
Meet the man who invented the emoji
01:12 - Source: CNN

His emoji were created for a very specific purpose: ease of communication on a nascent mobile internet system developed by Japanese telecom giant NTT DoCoMo. The system offered emails, but they were restricted to 250 characters, so emoji were a way to say more in a limited space.

Kurita, who was just 25 years old at the time, had to work within several limitations. But none were greater than the meager 144-pixel resolution, which is why the original emoji look so blocky compared to modern ones.

“I didn’t like it, because the number of spaces in the grid was not an odd number, and not being able to find a center made developing the emoji extremely laborious,” said Kurita.

Today, emoji are often created with vector graphics, so they can technically scale up to unlimited resolution.