Visual Communication in a Digital World: The Complete Guide

August 25, 2020

Visual communication is a powerful tool to interact more effectively in digital arenas. Stickers, GIFs, Emojis, Animojis, and Bitmojis are all visual tools you and I are familiar with and probably use often in chat with family and friends. Words on a screen lack non-verbal cues such as emotion, empathy, and gestures (body language) that are present when you talk face-to-face. Visuals help to fill those gaps and convey your message in a more concrete way.

But, visuals were an important part of human interaction far before texting and online chat rose to popularity. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, a system that employs characters in the form of pictures, date back to the 4th millennium BCE. People have been leaning on visuals to help express themselves better practically since the dawn of time.

Ancient hieroglyphics on stone

So, why is the use of visuals in communication still so important today? Well, they don’t say a picture is worth a thousand words for nothing. And in a digitally driven world, one can argue that visuals are way more important and essential than they were before.

In this blog, we’ll explore the history and evolution of visual communication and what’s next for visuals as part of digital interaction. Read on

A Brief History of Digital Communication & the Use of Visuals

The first text message was sent in 1992 by Neil Papworth, letters on a screen reading “Merry Christmas.” It was an exciting leap for digital communication, but quite simple compared to the advancements of today.

Merry Christmas text on a blue background, which was the first text message ever sent in 1992

Neil said, “In 1992, I had no idea just how popular texting would become, and that this would give rise to emojis and messaging apps used by millions. I only recently told my children that I sent that first text. Looking back with hindsight, it’s clearer to see that the Christmas message I sent was a pivotal moment in mobile history.”

It was a pivotal moment for sure. From then, people began to utilize texting more often as a form of convenient communication. In reaching for ways to better express themselves in messaging, they also leaned on emoticons - keyboard symbols that were used to express emotions, like :-) and :-(.

Four emoticon symbols representing smiley face, sad face, confused face, and excited face

Although crude when compared to today’s plethora of visual tools, the use of these emoticons proved that people have always been searching for ways to express emotion digitally. And from there, visual content continued to evolve.

From Emoticons to Emojis and Beyond

The 1990s was an action-packed decade for online communication. And by 1999, the first emojis were invented by Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita - a set of 12- by 12-pixel images created to help convey information visually, featuring icons like clouds, hearts, and a camera. The popularity of emojis took off in Japan and soon, the likes of Microsoft and Apple caught wind.

A grid image of the first set of emojis invented by Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita in 1999


However, emojis didn’t become widespread across the globe until just a decade ago in 2010, (we know, it seems like emojis as we know them have been around forever!) after Google petitioned to get them recognized by the Unicode Consortium, an organization that maintains tech standards across computers.

In 2011, Apple introduced their first emoji keyboard for iOS and Android followed 2 years later. From then on, new sets of emojis have since been developed, providing users with more abundance and diversity of visual content.

A visual grid of multiple Apple iOS emojis

Diving Deeper: Issues with Emoji Adaptation and Interpretation

The perceived meanings behind emojis can differ based on who you ask. However, it’s interesting to note that positive emojis tend to have more of a general consensus about their meaning. Smiley faces aren’t typically up for debate, but sad faces, especially when their eyes are closed or have notable design differences depending upon the mobile vendor (e.g., different design aesthetics between Apple and Android emoji sets) make it difficult to interpret them (Shurick and Daniel, 2020; Miller et al., 2016).

Emojis are popular and powerful visual communication tools, but still have many constraints. For example, representing concepts like “race” using emoji skin tone variations has many technical limitations, which can make introducing a set of inter-racial marriage emojis or inter-racial handshake emojis challenging.

It’s also virtually impossible for emojis to quickly respond to social and cultural milestones and trends. And that’s due to the fact that the process of pitching, creating, and adapting new emojis is very slow moving. Anyone can pitch an idea for a new emoji and submit it to the Unicode Consortium, but the approval and creation process can take years (!!!). By the time an emoji is approved and created, it may be out of date or less useful and relevant than it was in the moment it was suggested.
Sometimes, an emoji’s meaning can also be lost in the emoji adoption process discussed above.

Kneeling person emoji

For example, the Kneeling Person emoji was originally proposed to symbolize the U.S. national anthem protests, where the emoji graphic depicted a person kneeling on one knee. However, except for Google (and Twitter, since mid-July, 2020), all other vendors still depict a person kneeling on both knees in their emoji designs. The creators of the kneeling person emoji think that the meaning was lost in the emoji name as the word “kneeling” could refer to kneeling on both knees as well.  

These hurdles and misinterpretations aren’t ideal, especially when people are constantly hungry for fresh content relevant to what’s going on in a rapidly evolving society.

So, what happens when emojis aren’t enough? That’s where other forms of visual content come in.

Filling in the Visual Communication Gaps: Stickers, GIFs, and More

As people became more dependent on visuals in their texts, messages, and DMs, more diverse forms of content became more popular. Stickers and GIFs are two popular forms of visual content that exist in messaging environments.

Other types of more emoji-like content, such as Apple’s Memoji, Animoji, and Snap’s Bitmoji, have also inspired people to recreate their likeness in a digital format. Recent research shows that both men and women are equally relying on these forms of visual content in casual communication (Herring et al., 2020).

The breadth of options within the visual content realm have provided people with more ways to express themselves digitally. We’ll touch on some different types of visual content and the purpose they serve in digital conversations.


Holler animated stickers featuring multiple characters

Stickers are pieces of animated content that elevate chat in digital environments. Oftentimes they feature characters expressing emotions that can easily replace text (think cute, laughing kitten replacing LOL in a message exchange).

Stickers aim to add color, context, and nuance to conversations happening online. As mentioned, in an environment where words (and even emojis) on a screen can be easily misinterpreted, stickers can help bridge that gap by expressing a certain emotion or setting a mood. And let’s face it - they’re also just super fun to send to friends!

Unlike Unicode emojis, which are limited in style, stickers can be designed to be much more specific and nuanced based on gender, race, demographic, etc. For this reason, stickers tend to be much more inclusive and globally relevant. At Holler, we design stickers for a global audience, and have created regionally specific characters that resonate better with users within those regions.

Our in-house animation studio also has the ability to create stickers that react to trends and events much more quickly than emojis do. In the midst of the pandemic, we were able to quickly create empathetic content to help people stay in touch while socially distanced. These stickers were shared at record high rates, proving that they were useful and relevant to conversation.

Some other examples of culturally relevant content we’ve produced to reflect current events include masked characters, characters striking the “Each for Equal” pose for International Women’s Day, and Working From Home stickers.

Four Holler “Women’s Equality Day” stickers
Four Holler “working from home” stickers


Two GIFs with one featuring a plane flying in the sky and one of a man clapping

GIFs were first invented way back in 1987, even before the first text message was sent. The Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) supports animation and looping to create the viral meme-like content we’re familiar with today.

Although GIF technology has been around since the 80s, they only recently rose to popularity in tandem with the rise in message usage and meme culture. The short animations tell a story and express emotions better than still images do, making GIFs the perfect response to a risky text or punchline to a joke in a group chat.

Many GIFs lean on pop culture references, Hollywood characters, and humorous everyday moments, making them a light-hearted tool for engaging in conversation.

Memoji, Animoji, and Bitmoji

Multiple visual examples of Apple Memojis

Source: G2 Learning Hub

Content types like Memoji and Bitmoji allow people to recreate themselves in digital form they can send to their friends. But, why has this type of self-reflective content been so popular? There might be science behind it. The “baby theory,” based on the psychoanalytic theory of the Mirror Stage, suggests that when we create these avatars, we’re replicating the mirror stage, the point in our childhood development when we actually recognize ourselves in a mirror.

Another possibility is simply vanity - people love to see themselves in different forms, and recreating ourselves digitally even allows us to choose how we want to be perceived.

The popularity of this visual content may also be based on gender. A study, mentioned above, found that although men adopted the use of Animoji first (and often adopt many forms of technologies before women), Animoji are more popular among women because they believe they are playful, funny, and engaging. It’s important to note that other types of visual tools, like emoji, are also perceived as more feminine in nature (Herring et al., 2020).

Whatever the case may be, these self-representative content forms are just more tools available for self-expression in messaging environments.

What’s Next for Visual Communication?

It’s safe to say visual communication has evolved dramatically since the early days of digital communication. Today, there are plenty of options available to us - from Stickers to GIFs and everything in between. But, what’s next for visual communication? The answer may lie in the power of AI.

Advancements in Artificial Intelligence will allow for more customized and smarter recommendations of visual content to the end user. When AI can accurately model the context of a conversation, more relevant and informed suggestions will help to improve the user experience. At Holler, we already provide content suggestions based on the context of conversations, but the power of these suggestions will only continue to improve over time.

As far as types of visual tools go, the sky's the limit. We predict that societal trends will continue to inspire new genres and formats of visual content.  At Holler, we’re constantly innovating our product to provide the most premium visual content to our users. And we’re excited to see what happens next.

In Closing

Visual communication has been relevant since the dawn of time, and visual tools are even more crucial in a world driven by digital interactions. People are constantly looking for new tools to help them better express themselves when words on a screen don’t cut it.

In recent years, we’ve seen quite the evolution of digital visuals, from the introduction of emoticons to the development of Emojis, stickers, GIFs, and more. All of these visual tools help people be more expressive, creative, and understood in messaging environments.

At Holler, we look forward to seeing how visual communication will continue to evolve, and are excited to be part of the process of making conversations better, one piece of content at a time.

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