Emojis are everywhere these days—especially in our texting and social media posts. In fact, more than 50% of Instagram comments contain an emoji of some sort.
It almost seems like we’re communicating our thoughts through pictures. Tears of joy, red hearts, and birthday cakes are some of the more popular choices that represent how we think and feel.
Emojis are great as simplified responses to a variety of situations. They’re colorful, fun, and can communicate an entire sentence with the delivery of a small yellow face looking off to the left in deep thought.
Symbols abound in every culture. They represent ideas about life, death and everything in-between. They communicate complex worldviews and philosophies about life. Yes, emojis are nothing new. They’ve been around for thousands of years.
Man’s First Emojis
Cave people weren’t exactly painting emojis on grotto walls. Shakespeare didn’t have Romeo and Juliet sending each other red hearts, flowers, or—you guessed it—peaches and eggplants (teenagers). But the idea of communicating a message through symbols has been around forever.
Ancient Egyptians didn’t even have an alphabet like the one we use today, which was actually invented by the Phonecians (then improved upon by the Greeks). They used hieroglyphics, drawings of birds, beetles, snakes, and other creatures. While some of these images illustrated sounds, they also conveyed complete ideas, much in the way Chinese calligraphy does today.
The Indiana Jones of Emojis
Digital/visual designer Michela Graziani has spent the last three years researching thousands of ancient symbols from cultures as diverse as the ancient Aztecs in Mexico to the Maori of New Zealand.
What led Graziani on this journey? Per the Symbolikon website, “Before I made Symbolikon, I couldn’t find a comprehensive visual library of symbols throughout ages and cultures, a library that could give me an organic vision of symbology both in term of meanings and graphic signs”.
She continues, “In addition, graphic symbols were a chaotic jumble of different graphic styles and qualities coming from different sources and none offered a vector version of symbols. Anthropographic studies are too wordy and complex for not experts.”
The end result is a catalog of 650 symbols from around the world that “transform human symbols into modern and usable icons” — the Symbolikon Digital Encyclopedia. How it’s described on its website: “Symbolikon is esoteric, mystic, religious, shamanic, folk, ethnic, worldwide, visual, textual, meaningful, beautiful, consistent, modern, useful… The missing piece in graphic and communication resources.”
Though Graziani consulted with anthropologists, historians, and designers, she admittedly did not consult with indigenous groups. The symbols have been organized into 25 different categories like Celtic, Hopi, and Chakra. Each symbol comes in four iterations (light, bold, outlined, and greyed), with a series of descriptive tags that give more information about what it represents.
How Symbolikon Might Change “Emoji” Use
The icons are standardized, simplified, and vectorized for use in graphic design so everyone from graphic designers to tattoo artists can tap into some timeless art.
Right now the Symbolikon is in a crowdfunding phase via Kickstarter, with the eventual goal of making it free to everyone. You can check out the project here: Symbolikon.
Only time will tell, however, if people can ascribe similar meanings to the same symbol. While it may not prove so textable for consumers, Symbolikon may serve as an inspirational buffet for designers.