The little-known human stories behind emoji designs | Sunday Observer

The little-known human stories behind emoji designs

22 August, 2021
Andrew Tosh didn't know there was an emoji based on his father
Andrew Tosh didn't know there was an emoji based on his father

You may not think much about the emoji you use to text every day but there are compelling human stories behind them

"My father's music is message music, to uplift the world from its slumbering mentality," says reggae musician Andrew Tosh, speaking from his home in Kingston, Jamaica.

His father, Peter Tosh, was one of the three founding members of the 1960s band The Wailers, along with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer.

Peter Tosh's story doesn't end happily; he was murdered in a horrific attack in the 1980s, but he left both a musical and a political legacy.

And if you open your emoji keyboard and search for "levitating", you will find a tiny picture of a man dressed in a dapper black suit, hat and shades.

That is Peter Tosh.

Niambe McIntosh, Peter Tosh's daughter, looks after his estate. She says her father's legacy is about justice and human rights, and she's proud to continue his work.

"He didn't just want people to dance; he wanted them to dance to their own (political) awakening."

She laughs in surprise when she learns her father is immortalised in an emoji.

"I did not know that… but I do know that picture it's based on, of Bob, Bunny and my Dad in suits, and my Dad stands really tall."

It was a surprise to her brother Andrew too. "Oh cool!" he says. "I actually know that picture. The young version of Peter Tosh."

So how did a reggae legend end up as an emoji?

Web(dings) history

It's a story which takes us from Kingston, Jamaica, to rainy Seattle in the United States; specifically, to the Microsoft headquarters in the mid-1990s.

Back then, the personal computer revolution was just beginning, and typographer Vincent Connaire was working on new fonts. Among the scripts he designed was Webdings; a picture-based font which was intended to be used on early webpages.

Connaire is a real music fan, particularly ska. One of his favourite bands is the English ska revival band The Specials. Their label, 2 Tone Records, had a logo based on an early image of The Wailers.

In the photo, Peter Tosh stands back-to-back with Bob Marley, staring out of the frame in a dark suit, bow tie and sunglasses. The 2 Tone Records designer took that image as inspiration.

And it's that logo that was adapted by Connaire two decades later for Webdings.

In his version, the suited man is jumping; or more precisely pogoing - popular among Specials fans -and it was intended to represent the "jump" from one page to another. Years later, many Webdings symbols were encoded as emoji and released on every single smartphone and technology platform in the world. Connaire drew many of our other symbols.

"We just looked around and drew what we saw," he says, sounding surprised by the enduring legacy his designs have had.

"The boom box was my boom box. The mountain symbol was Mount Rainier (near Seattle). It makes me proud to realise that we were a part of something special."

Emoji are approved and added to the official set by Unicode, a Silicon-Valley-based group.