Pictures books are generally targeted at children, with friendly text and accompanying illustrations. But what if you took a classic of English literature and re-told the story entirely in pictures? That’s exactly what one bold and determined soul did a few years ago.

 

The wordless book

If I were to ask you to reproduce the text of a short story as faithfully as possible without using words, you might have to draw some detailed pictures. If I were then to up the ante and ask you to re-write Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick using only a set of 12px by 12px icons, I expect you’d think me crazy.

Despite the seemingly impossible and irrational challenge, a group of creative souls led by Fred Benenson did exactly this in 2010, translating the tale of the white whale into little icons like these:

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Some of Google’s emoji

The book was written by anonymous freelancers around the world who were paid five cents for each sentence that they transcribed into emoji. There was no set meaning for each picture, leaving the task very open-ended. The aim was to just provide a logical pictorial representation of each sentence in the original novel.

 

What are emoji?

The story begins with emoticons (or smilies), the now-ubiquitous smiley faces built out of punctuation marks. Emoticons emerged in online message boards in the mid-1980s, allowing people to represent tone, emotion or intention alongside their typed words.

Researchers are now saying that smilies are valuable communication tools, and that using emoticons in business documents might be a perfectly acceptable thing to do. That is sure to spark a controversial debate.

In the 90s, instant messaging systems like MSN Messenger and ICQ were programmed to replace keystrokes like :-) with an actual graphic of a smiley face. Microsoft Word started doing the same thing, and everyone caught on.

But smiley and frowny faces weren’t enough. The stylised emoticons were joined by hundreds of other standardised pictograms, which are called emoji

Since their first use in around 1999 in Japan, emoji have gradually spread with the international popularity of mobile phones and messaging platforms. Apple and Android-based mobile phones now include a common set of emoji as standard – these, like any other font, can look slightly different depending on their creator.

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A handful of the emoji loaded on Samsung Galaxy phones

 

Some emoji have specific cultural meanings in Japan, such as the white flower which I’m told denotes “Good homework”. However, with the shift across cultural borders, the emoji icons have become quite open for interpretation, making the writing of Emoji Dick possible.

 

The old is new again

Benenson’s work started as a personal project, but was seen to be a triumph of modern literature and was christened Emoji Dick. In 2011 the book was given recognised status and catalogued by the American Library of Congress.

Despite Benenson’s own light-hearted and self-effacing view of the project, some outsiders felt he was a genius. This was seen as a new language, and a breakthrough in written communication. Except really, it wasn’t. It’s not a new thing to use pictures instead of words; it’s a very ancient concept indeed.

Almost everyone is aware that ancient cultures, particularly the Egyptians, had pictographic languages. With hieroglyphics, “the written word” was actually more like “the written image”.

It’s not just ancient cultures, either; many modern Asian languages can be written in pictograms. Japanese, for instance, can be written in a phoenetic alphabet where each mark on the page represents a sound, or in Kanji, where each mark directly represents a word or concept.

Is it any wonder that emoji have their origins in Japanese culture? The word “emoji” literally translates from the Japanese for “Picture character” (that is, a pictograph, or hieroglyph!).

 

Applying the lesson of emoji

It has long been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and there are numerous cultures where pictures are words. As a professional graphic designer, I like that!

It is unlikely that someone attempting to read Emoji Dick is going to understand the story in their minds without already being familiar with Moby Dick. That’s because there is no set meaning for emoji; the book is about representing concepts graphically rather than linguistically.

Your logo, your webpage design, your corporate letterhead and so on all speak volumes to your customers. Your potential customer will judge your business in as little as 0.7 seconds after seeing your logo. Designing excellent graphical representations of your business is therefore paramount.