Skip to content

Age of Emoji

2015 September 26
by Matt

This is no more than a faint sketch, but with that disclaimer, a couple of thoughts on what appear to be contemporary trends in graphic communication…

It seems like I get a lot of demands for “a logo” for things that seem like they don’t actually need one—beyond the fact that popular opinion seems to want a logo* for more and more things. Sub-organizations, sub-features of a program, short-term activities, and even more fine-grained components of any of the above.

Starting a whole batch of new graphics, yesterday, I wondered whether there is any connection with what feels like a rising profile of emoji? I’m vague on this, frankly, but I certainly get an impression of efforts to make more and more varied emoji available in more and more contexts… which implies some growing demand for such.

There’s also the related phenomenon of the GIF revival. Browse around more than one irreverent comments section, and you’ll see plenty of messages consisting mainly or even exclusively of a picture. Distinct from picture-sharing, I should emphasize, these are images used as entries in a textual conversation.

Considering all of this, I wonder if it adds up to evidence of growing desire to communicate in pictures? I’m not sure. My instinct is that plenty of objections await such a thesis. I wonder, all the same, how this might appear within a deep history context as viewed from far in the future. Will a 31st century communications scholar observe that, around my own era, specific advances in technology combined with general labor surplus enabled a revival of pictographic communication?

Meanwhile, whatever its significance the timing of this icon boom feels all the more curious, at any rate in professional settings. I’m reminded of an Atlantic article from a couple of years ago which quoted Quinn Norton: “Right now my field must tackle describing a world where falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same; it looks like typing.” Norton is a writer, but I think this challenge is even more acute in the graphic arts.

I suppose “business” has long been somewhat abstract, graphically, but it sure feels like this characteristic is intensifying rapidly. Probably the activities of an office bureaucracy are not much more visually ephemeral than other periods in the past century or so. But the trappings of office culture seem like they peaked, in terms of visual utility, a generation or two back and are now in sharp decline. In the 1980s, perhaps, the pictographic possibilities for the office were rich. So many tools and machines! The pre-digital objects were still familiar: envelopes, typewriters, pushpins, clipboards, file cabinets… At the same time, big, new machines were multiplying. The familiar telephone was joined by the fax machine, copier, and not only big boxy computers but associated physical objects, like floppy disks.

Much of our contemporary generic iconography still rests on this era. Right now my WordPress editor shows me a clipboard and a rubber eraser; floppy disks, e.g., still represent once-associated functions even as the original object is almost unknown in daily life. Cartoonists continue to draw clunky phone handsets that are just about as obsolete…

I can imagine why, too. What does a phone look like these days? A little rectangle, frequently. What does a computer look like? A rectangle with a keyboard and mouse—and even these are becoming increasingly optional. What does data look like, now that both disks and discs are on the decline? A flash drive? I found yesterday that it’s just possible to create a recognizable flash drive icon… but it feels awfully tenuous. I picked up my first flash drive about 10 years ago. Will people still bother with them in another 10? At all events my guess is that they never achieve notably iconic status.

None of this is insurmountable, I will add, even to whatever extent it is a genuinely new or newly challenging phenomenon. It does feel like remarkable timing, as noted. People seem to want, and get, more and more icons and picture-symbols in communication… at the same time that many common activities become more and more divorced from visually distinct paraphernalia. Maybe one is even a reaction to the other? A longing for something “solid” and “right-brain,” as digital culture otherwise feels like a world more and more exclusively made of abstract, “left-brain” alphanumeric information?

Watch this space, maybe?

* If I’m not mistaken, this is mild irony, as the term most frequently latched on to for these non-text graphics is, I believe, derived from the Greek logos, signifying “word.” I recall one professor occasionally referring to clients who wanted only “a bug and a logo,” presumably meaning a graphic-word combination. I must guess that it may not even have been that long ago, then, that common use of “logo” jumped from the stylized word to the accompanying “bug.” In any event, our language is littered with such ironies, and I’m not going to convince anyone that, e.g., Nike’s real logo is not the ubiquitous “swoosh,” but the oblique capital-letter NIKE that originally accompanied it.

Comments are closed.