He and Daniel realised there wasn’t an existing emoji that evoked that visual convention, so they decided to pursue one and eventually landed on the melting face, which Daniel described as “more visceral” than turning into paper.
Many of the best face emojis “rely on conventions that already exist in other places in visual culture, and one of the main drivers of this is comics or manga,” said Cohn. He also noted that many of the face emojis from the original emoji set use expressions from manga.
In 1999, the first emojis were created by a Japanese artist named Shigetaka Kurita, who found inspiration in manga. They were designed to facilitate text-based communication; NTT Docomo, a Japanese mobile phone company, had a 250-character limit on messages sent through its mobile internet service, so shorthand was key to getting one’s point across. The original set of 176 emojis designed by Kurita is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Today, even without character restrictions, emojis can still communicate emotions with greater ease, speed and flexibility than words can.
The melting face is no exception. On the more literal side, it can be a way of expressing, say, the sensation caused by a broken air conditioner. Figuratively, it can be used to convey how one feels after an embarrassing interaction with a crush, the exhaustion of living through a pandemic and, of course, sarcasm.
“It evokes a metaphoric frame or metaphoric knowledge base that should be relatively accessible to people — the notion of melting,” Cohn said. That concept can then be applied to all kinds of emotions.
All emojis “are usually designed with the intention that they can be used in flexible, multifaceted ways, in the same way that many words can be flexibly used,” Cohn added.
And visual language, of course, can be even more elastic than words. “Illustration can do things that reality can’t,” Daniel said.
Case in point: “melting face” and its myriad interpretations, many of them quite affecting.
“Emojis aren’t inherently deep,” said Erik Carter, a graphic designer who created the sample image for the melting face. “It’s how people use them that makes them profound.”
He offered a reading of his own. Many of us, Carter said, may feel hopeless because of things like climate change or “our government’s inaction.” “Sometimes,” he said, “it does feel as though the best we can do is smile as we melt away.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.