If a picture paints a thousand words…

Are you fluent in Emoji, the world’s fastest growing digital language?

Another week, another tube strike which was thankfully called off. From #firstworldproblems to #solvemyproblemsin4words, we can already predict today’s trending topics on Twitter.

During the last tube strike, I received a whatsapp message from a friend who was working from home: it was a URL link to a visual riddle that had gone viral on twitter.

London Underground had challenged its users to translate the name of 13 tube stations from strings of emoji symbols. The idea was a misjudgement that added to the city-wide sense of frustration that day, but it also underlined just how central these symbols have become to our everyday communication.


Emoji use has soared across messenger and social media platforms, especially after Apple and Google officially embraced emoji keyboards on their devices in 2011 and 2013.

How did it all start?

The first time I found myself interacting with those smiley faces was as a teenaged user of MSN messenger.  Everyone would overload their status message with emoticons and use a combination of text and symbols to convey their 100 different personalities. If that wasn’t “cool enough”, over the years, MSN added more features such as the annoying “nudge” which would shake a friend’s chat window, and the option to send giant animated emoticons – the outcome: your computer screen would be bombarded with wave after wave of emojis.

Like many mobile innovations, it originated in Japan. In 1999 Shigetaka Kurita developed emoji as visual cues for emoticons and ideas in mobile phone messages; it was a feature to differentiate a new product from the rest of the market. The word is derived by combining the Japanese word for picture “e” and character “moji”. Interestingly, many others still believe that emojis have their roots in the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt – the idea of a visual language to communicate. Either way, the 21st century has seen the irresistible rise of an emoji culture.

Let’s use Instagram as an example; almost 40 percent of all text posted to the photo-sharing app contains at least one emoji in the photo caption. If that wasn’t enough, Instagram now allows searchable emoji in hashtags too!

As for twitter, a real-time update on which emojis are being used across twitter is now available through an emoji tracker!


Until recently, relationships were initiated by traditional concepts of communication; ie writing letters or emails. In a digital age, these tribal rituals seem not only dated but old fashioned. A shift in habits began at the tail end of the last century with the proliferation of the smart phone. Dating app tinder is, in my view, a perfect example whereby some matches have been made solely through the art of emojis – true story.

Strings of emojis are now being used to communicate more nuanced messages and in are replacing the written word altogether. Are the days of traditional communication now gone? The symbols have become a language of their own, a way to transcend the limits of one’s native tongue and communicate with others in all different parts of the world.

The question remains: can we successfully reach out to new friends and colleagues in a world where communication is mediated by Emoji?

According to some forward-thinking brands which have released Emoji-based campaigns – yes!


PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), has decided to take a risky approach by telling a story using emojis only to highlight animal cruelty.

The graphics offer a blunt look at how consumer goods rely on the fur of rabbits, cows and monkeys, which are killed with guns, needles and hammers.


The WWF launched a very powerful #EndangeredEmoji Twitter campaign to help save animals from extinction. The charity created 17 emojis of endangered animals and are asking their audience to participate by donating 10p every time they retweet one.


Two organisations choosing to engage a target audience not with emotive words but with evocative symbols.


On my way to work this morning, I came across this poster and had to take a photo on my mobile. It’s part of McDonald’s “good times” campaign which uses emojis to illustrate how a bad day can turn into a good one by visiting your local McDonald’s.


Last week, I picked up a book at the airport entitled “The visual communications book:  using words, drawing and whiteboards to sell big ideas” by Mark Edwards. The blurb read the following “By creatively combining the basic building blocks of words, images and shapes, you can make even abstract, complex concepts appear concrete, simple and real“. I couldn’t agree with you more, Mark.

If a picture really does paint a thousand words then the emoji isn’t just visually interesting, it’s really very eloquent.


About soniasoundandvision

Hi and welcome to my blog. I will mainly be writing about my interests and the translation industry. Your comments are welcome :) Enjoy
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