How I helped to create a new universal language and changed the face of Smiley

How I helped to create a new universal language and changed the face of Smiley
Nicolas Loufrani

By Nicolas Loufrani

October 6th 2017 at 9:48AM

Nicolas Loufrani, the CEO of Smiley talks us through the history of the iconic language and how he helped create the universal language of the emoji.

Smiley is one of the most iconic and universally recognised images in the world. The simple yellow face that bore the origin of the emoticon and inspired the emoji has become the de facto global language. As we live more globally and try to transcend language barriers, Smiley (and its emoji descendants) are being adopted for increasing purposes.

What began as a shortcut for happiness, evolved into a cultural movement in the late 20th century and now, acts as a symbol for self-expression and positivity at the heart of culture and society.

It was in 1996, that we started to evolve Smiley for the first time into the technology space, when our company licensed the rights to Alcatel to use Smiley as a greeting message on their phones. This would be the first time that a Smiley would appear on a cellphone screen.

It was from this usage that I had a simple idea of how I could evolve the way people were using text-based ASCII emoticons and start using our Smiley to create expressive icons that actually meant something to people. I started with 471 of these 3D Smileys that corresponded to a variety of different human emotions and to these pre-existing ASCII emoticons.

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When considering communication, we do so on two levels. Firstly verbal Communication consisting of words making sentences and secondly non-verbal communication.

The latter consists of body posture, facial expressions, hand gesture, tone of voice and possibly energy. As early as 1982, emoticons were being used to bring non-verbal communication to digital communications in the days of black and green screens.

The portrait emoticon forms that were Smileys became the first revolution in communication enabled by Web 2.0 in the late 1990’s. They brought emotions into text, like in a real conversation.

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The next stage in this projects evolution was to create a writing system to replace words other than emotions, so we introduced at first 12 categories, which included; animals, colours, countries, celebrations, flags, food, fun, occupations, moods, celebrities, planets and of course moods.

In 2001 we launched these online as The Official Smiley Dictionary, with the unique slogan “The birth of a universal language”. The idea behind this was for Smileys to not only enhance text and bring emotions to life on a screen, but also to become a new universal form of communication, accessible to all irrespective of age, language, gender, race and religion.

The thinking was to create a real logographic system, similar to Japanese Kanji or Egyptian hieroglyphs, so we designed both ideograms, which represented abstract concepts such as being a rebel and pictograms representing physical objects like foods.

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By 2004 we had created 23 categories of icons and 887 different Smileys, which unlike Kanji or Chinese that have to be learnt and cannot be understood at first sight by everyone, were instantly recognisable and universally understandable to people from all cultures.

By doing this as part of a brand extension program, I was also able to develop a common thread of a Smiley logo spreading happiness through each and every logogram. For example a dog was a Smiley dog or a clock was a Smiley clock.

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We then started publishing activity books so that children could explore their understanding of human emotions in a fun way using our Smileys, we even went as far as publishing a French-English dictionary which used our Smileys to help them learn language through our fun images.

Our Smileys started spreading virally through our brand extension program and organically through their general adoption online during the noughties. They started appearing on the internet & cell phones, in books and on consumer products. 

Then Smiley memes were getting reproduced and even started evolving in an anarchic way, being expanded and even reinvented by many web-based companies. As the popularity of Smileys grew, confusion also begun to grow and the ability of a large number of Smileys to be universally recognised somehow started to be reduced.

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In his paper “Darwin’s emoticons, the artistic portrayal of 51 states of emotions”, by Dacher Keltner of the University of California, he studied the emoticons for 51 states of expressive behaviour which were designed by Matt Jones from Pixar.

Only 32 of these emotions were actually recognised with accuracy by the 347 participants in the study. Keltner also discovered that judgement context influenced emotion recognition, and that there were also cultural variations in the perception of emoticons…. So long for my dream of a universal language.

As much as pictograms are probably understandable by everyone, this tends to prove that ideograms, as obvious as we might think they are, still need some learning to be universally recognised. For a logographic system to be adopted, it has to be recognised with accuracy by a community of people, and if this is a universal system, it should be adopted universally, like the “stop” street sign or the sign for a restroom.

This was probably the weakness of our Smileys, as what was needed was a closed and standardised system, promoted universally in the same way an alphabet is taught locally.

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Writing was a technology invented with the rise of the first empires. It was needed for administrative purpose as a way to store data.

Is Unicode a modern form of corporate empire that prefigures what a future without States may be? Its members are the largest tech and social media companies that enable our whole world to communicate.

They are not owned by Unicode, they associate freely within this consortium to standardise communication and somehow, in a purely organic way have imposed this new form of digital writing called emoji – a Japanese word for pictograph, that has been adopted by billions of people in less than 10 years.

There is no precedent on that scale and speed in human history and this is definitely due to how superior this technology is, how simple they are to learn and to reproduce. Unlike other forms of writing, emoji are simply typed on a keyboard, kids will not have to go through years of education to draw them. 

Unlike our Smileys they are also not constrained by a common Smiley eyes and mouth behind each design, they are not as fun, but this increased their ability to be understood with accuracy.

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Similarly to font styles used with the alphabet, emojis are designed in a different way by the different Unicode members. The Apple emojis are drawn with slight differences from Samsung’s or Twitter’s, yet they are very similar and have the same meaning.  This variety definitely puts emoji on par with other writing systems.

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In the meantime we have gone on to create Smileys for over 3000 words and still continue to create more each day for the merchandising needs of our brand, whilst emoji have so far been limited to creating only 1144, but these have been adopted by the biggest tech companies in the world.

Some people criticise emoji because they consider they will make our language poorer and future generations of kids will grow up less intelligent for it, but I do not agree. This is as erroneous as Plato criticising the apparition of this new technology called writing in Phaedrus because he thought it was inhuman and it would weaken our memory. No one would remember him were it not for his writings.

Emoji are used together with our alphabet, they make our communication richer, because we learn to use different forms of writing.

So what do I perceive is the future for Smileys and emoji? Whilst emojis now dominate the digital world, we are mostly focused on merchandise and entertainment. Will emojis increase greatly in number during the next decades? Will they complement our alphabets and become the real universal form of communication that I envisioned, taught in schools and enabling people from different languages to communicate through a universal form of writing?

I do hope so, and if this was the case and even if Smileys merely remained a creative merchandise business, I still think that my vision was right and that I have started an artistic movement that contributed to the creation of a modern universal “language”.

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