THE SERIOUS PLAY WITH EMOJIS

How emojis conquered our online communication, from the designers who made them, to the „ministry” that approves them 🤓

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AI generated image/Microsoft Bing.

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  1. 92% of the Internet users worldwide use emojis, and the professionals say that people use them as a complementary part in the digital communication where, in many cases, writing does not translate well enough the emotional states or the nuances of a message.
  2. Emojis systems are so popular and have developed so rapidly, that the need of an authority in the field has arisen. Unicode is like a “ministry of emojis”. It offers recommendations and approves the introduction of new emojis. All of these are necessary because the over 3.500 emojis existing today are already hard to implement.
  3. The most popular emojis worldwide are, by far, the ones that communicate emotions. In 2021, on the first place in terms of popularity was face with tears of joy emoji (😂), on the second place was the red heart emoji (❤️), and on the third place was the rolling on the floor laughing emoji (🤣).
  4. The first emoji set of Apple included almost 500 elements and was developed in just three months, in 2008. “I remember Steve Jobs saying the icons, the emojis, almost need to look like candy, like you can lick them, very shiny and glossy. Like lickable candies”, Angela Guzman, one of the designers, says in an interview for Panorama.
  5. The emoji sets for Twitter, WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger, developed by the IconFactory studio, also raised challenges, because of the different visual directions, but also because of the variety of devices and screens that designers had to think about. The development of the emojis system slows down, because it is already too hard to search in the thousands of emojis that already exist.

When Keith Broni, behavioral scientist, made his dissertation paper at University College London about how emojis change the emotional perception of a message, he did not think that he will eventually make a living from studying the little graphical symbols. Today, Broni is the editor-in-chief of Emojipedia, a website started in 2013 by Australian Jeremy Burge, who wished to monitor the emoji systems on different platforms and explain them to the enthusiasts.

Today, there are over 3.500 emojis, and 92% of the Internet users globally use them, so the work Broni and his team do is complex and involves research.

“Our job at Emojipedia is to monitor emojis and provide an easy to access, comprehensible, yet accurate resource for all the emoji-curious across the globe”, Broni explains in an interview for Panorama, via Google Meet. “Some people have called us emoji historians, you could call us emoji researchers or emoji anthropologists”, he adds.

Although almost everyone uses them in their digital communication, few people know that behind the small graphical symbols are serious research, strict approvals, and complex design processes. The professionals in the field and the creators of Apple, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Twitter emojis told Panorama about the work behind the emoji ecosystem.

🥹 Emojis take the feelings beyond the written words

The popularity of emojis grew sharply, along with the development of online environment and smartphones. From his perspective of behavioral scientist, Broni says that the emojis are a complementary part of the written communication and a very important tool, especially in the digital communication, where the mediation of the screen can sometimes make it difficult to understand the nuances of a message.

Usually, people use emojis to establish a relationship with the other party and to express positive feelings. Even in the case of negative emojis, they are not necessarily used when really tense moments occur, because the small graphical symbols are perceived as playful, no matter the context, even in the case of negative feelings. “An emoji is a playful or performative manner of communicating the relationship and the level of comfort you have with that other person”, Broni explains.

Angela Guzman, designer, entrepreneur, and visual consultant was an intern at Apple when she became one of the designers behind the development of the first emoji set of the company.

Guzman thinks that emojis are a powerful communication tool: “I strongly believe that images or pictograms can really capture an emotion that can easily translate from one language to another without losing its meaning or getting confusing”, she says in an interview via Google Meet for Panorama.

“Sometimes words don’t capture a feeling as well like they do (note: the emojis), but an image kind of adds that part that words don’t yet collect. It’s more of like the body language when you speak, that is what emojis can capture”.

Ged Maheux, the co-founder of IconFactory, the design studio that was behind the creation of several emoji sets for Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, thinks that in recent years the popularity of emojis has exploded. Although there are already thousands of emojis to express everything, the users keep asking for more.

“It’s its own language, really. It really is. It’s like pictographic language, like hieroglyphs or even some Japanese characters, I think it’s come to be”, Maheux adds.

😎 Unicode, a “Ministry of Emojis”

Because the emoji systems on the devices and platforms kept developing with time, and the emojis became, actually, an independent graphic language, even a font by itself, the need of industry standards became more and more important. This is, since 2013, the job of Unicode Consortium, a kind of Ministry of Emojis that periodically releases sets of recommendations about how the emojis should be created by the designers.

The Unicode Consortium is made of over 30 entities across corporate, governmental, and academic institutions and is the “authority” that approves or rejects the introduction of new emojis. Basically, for an emoji to be implemented on any platform, it needs to pass through a rigorous process of selection and approval from Unicode.

One of the essential elements is that an emoji can be displayed similarly on all the devices, so there are no confusions of meaning by displaying differences of the same emoji, depending on the platform or device.

“We began standardizing emojis 11 years ago, primarily to enable interoperability — so when a friend sends a heart to your phone, you see a heart and not an empty black box”, says Jennifer Daniel, Emoji Subcommittee Chair at Unicode, in an interview for Panorama.

Daniel is also a Design Director at Google, where she oversees the creative direction of Android, but also Emoji Kitchen, a tool that lets users combine two existing emojis to create new ones.

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Google emoji set. Photo: Shutterstock

What Unicode does is essential, because once an emoji is added to the ecosystem, it cannot be withdrawn, which means standardization is important not only from a design perspective, but also from the ergonomics of operating systems perspective.

“Once an emoji is encoded, it’s there forever — it can’t be deleted. Today, at 3,500+ emoji, we are inching closer and closer to the limit of what’s possible in the realm of device storage and complexity. So, our focus has become future-proofing emojis”, adds Jennifer Daniel. That is why Unicode prioritizes right now the emojis that are globally relevant and the ones that have to do with the fundamentals of human expression.

The process of selecting emojis is based on submitting proposals that have to meet certain rules.

“The Consortium has developed a submission process that is open to anyone, from individuals to non-profits to companies to governments. The process involves factors for encoding that can be applied as objectively as possible to each proposal”, Jennifer Daniel explains.

Everyone who wants to submit an emoji has to follow a certain documentation, and Unicode created a detailed guide. Besides this, on the Consortium’s website there is an Excel document that includes all the submissions sent to the Emoji Subcommittee and the status for each of them. Unicode periodically releases new iterations of the Unicode Standard on which the emoji ecosystem is built.

“New emojis should serve as building blocks that are versatile, fluid, and useful. Inclusion of one specific emoji will almost always be at the exclusion of another, for example: a Golden Retriever (note: breed of dog) emoji implies that we also need a Poodle emoji”.

In the long term, this would make the system that already has thousands of small pictograms even heavier, so Unicode is selective with approvals of new emojis, for the ecosystem not to develop so quickly anymore.

“This means we reject many proposals for ideas that are important, popular and valid — but are overly specific or that depict something that can already be expressed”, details Jennifer Daniel about the work behind the approval process.

Up until now, there are 15 versions of the Unicode Standard and the 16th version is expected to launch in the Fall of 2024.

🚀 The most popular emojis in the world

The Unicode selection, along with the usage behavior of emojis at a global scale, but also the technical limitations, contribute to the introductions of some emojis and not others. If, at the beginning, the emoji ecosystem grew rapidly and there were many new emojis added with each iteration of the Unicode Standard, now the expansion happens more slowly, more selectively.

That is why, says Keith Broni, we do not have an emoji for raspberry, for example: “It’s a common concept, but if you look at how people use a lot of the fruit and vegetables emojis, they are not some of the most popular ones. The use case for raspberry is kind of ambiguous”.

Broni also says that people use emojis to express feelings, in general, and for this, a raspberry or a chair emoji does not help too much, so they are less popular.

“People either want to use emojis to express the emotions explicitly or convey a sense of excitement about things they find cute. And, while everyone recognizes a chair, very few people get excited about a chair. So, this is an example of an emoji that, while comprehensible to the global population, nobody uses it because it is not emotion driven”.

Unicode publishes periodically data about the most used emojis worldwide, and the consortium’s statistics confirm the statement above. The most recent data set, from 2021, shows that the emojis that express emotions are by far the most used. On the first place is the emoji of face with tears of joy (😂), on the second place the red heart (❤️) emoji, and on the third place the rolling on the floor laughing emoji (🤣).

Usually, the emojis that rank in the first places are relatively the same. Below, Jennifer Daniel from Unicode created an infographic that shows how the 20 most used emojis ranking changed, between 2019 and 2021.

🤩 The first Apple emojis: From Japan to the whole world

Angela Guzman had just arrived as an intern in the design department at Apple in 2008, when she started working at the first emoji set of the company, one that would be launched in Japan.

“When I joined as an intern, I had no idea what I was going to be assigned. So, got there in my first day, and our director of design said «Angela, come over, you’re going to get your first project, you’re going to draw emojis», she recalls in the interview for Panorama and confesses that at that time she did not even know what an emoji was, because she never had heard that word before.

After he explained to her what an emoji was, the design director of Apple found her a mentor in the company, Raymond Sepulveda, and the two of them worked together on the emoji pack that contained almost 500 elements.

Back then, Steve Jobs’s company did not have so many employees and the teams were small, Angela Guzman recalls, so on this particular project she worked only with her mentor and learned everything on the spot. At the beginning, Guzman could choose which emoji to start with.

“I remember looking at the list of emojis and thinking, oh, I guess I’ll start with the engagement ring, the wedding band with diamond. But this one has metal, it has a clear stone, it’s kind of complicated because it has different textures and I don’t know any of this”, she says.

So, Sepulveda first taught her the software programs that she had to use and how to create the shiny, diamond, parts of emojis.

“I think that emoji took me four days to make, eight hours a day, because it was something that I really needed to completely understand. At some point, I got faster, and I would do four or five a day”, says Angela Guzman. Because they had only three months for working all the emoji set and many of them had common graphical parts, what helped them was “recycling” some of the common visual elements on emojis, so they could work faster.

“There were also personal touches. One of the ones that I remember most is the turquoise, blue dress. The assignment was very open, it was like a dress. I was like, I do not want to pick a stereotypical dress, so maybe I can make a dress that my sister made recently. She had made an actual dress, in real life, that looked exactly like that emoji, it was turquoise, with cut sleeves, and a brown belt”.

Because the emoji set they were working on was aiming for the Japanese market, the two designers had to make local adaptations that they did not think of initially. That was the case for a backpack which Guzman drew in a basic way, but later realized that in Japan the children did not used that type of backpack. After some deep research, she realized she needed to create another design.

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Apple emojis needed to be as appealing as candy, Steve Jobs said. Photo: Shutterstock.

Angela Guzman remembers that developing the first emojis pack for Apple was difficult also because the fact that, even if there were almost 500 emojis, they had to look as they were created by a single person, because Apple had design rules, and the esthetics had to follow the line the company followed.

“I remember Steve Jobs saying the icons, the emojis, almost need to look like candy, like you can lick them, very shiny and glossy. Like lickable candies”.

Another essential aspect was how well the emojis managed to capture the human emotions and convey the necessary symbolistic. The difficulty here was the small space in which designers had to arrange the elements, but also the fact that there was a certain tilt angle for certain emojis. “A lot of the fruits have an angle to them, like the strawberries going this way, so the watermelon might be also a little tilted, so when they were on the keyboard, they looked nice”, she says.

After the three months of development and the launch of the Apple emojis set in Japan, in 2008, the emojis became more and more popular and the company launched them worldwide.

🤔The emojis’ genesis is unclear

The first emoji set, says Wall Street Journal (WSJ), was created by Shigetaka Kurita in February 1999. Kurita was an employee at NTT Docomo, a Japanese mobile phone operator that was preparing to launch i-mode, the first major mobile internet system.

The set had 176 graphic elements, and the WSJ journalists say that it was the foundation for the later development of the emoji ecosystem. Other publications like Wired or The Verge, and even MoMa, credit Kurita as the creator of the first emojis.

However, Emojipedia published a 2019 blog article that offered an important correction – NTT Docomo and Kurita were not the creators of the first emojis, says Jeremy Burge in the piece where he admits that even Emojipedia credited Kurita as the creator of the original emojis. According to the article, SoftBank, another Japanese telecom company, launched in 1997 the first set of emojis, that contained 90 graphical symbols.

Emojipedia also published the Softbank emoji set and mentioned that many of them were a base for developing the Apple emoji ecosystem. NTT Docomo did not respond to the interview request sent by Panorama, but on the company’s website there is a piece in which various officials of the company, including Kurita, talk about the emojis created by NTT Docomo.

😀 How did the WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter emojis came to be

Ged Maheux remembers that the IconFactory studio got the development projects of the emoji sets for WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter as briefs. IconFactory already worked in design for many years, in various areas, so they had a contact at one of the companies, they got a brief, and after that they sent a sample with a few emojis, in different styles.

IconFactory is behind the first set of emojis for Twitter, which the company used between January 2014 and April 2020. The studio co-founded by Maheux also created the emojis used in Facebook Messenger between February 2015 and October 2016. The longest used emoji set created by IconFactory is the one in WhatsApp – the emojis worked and launched in April 2017 are still in use today.

As a design process, Maheux says that, usually, the emoji set is broken down into categories (animals, fruits etc.) and each category is assigned to a single designer.

“If you have four different people working on the smiley faces, there can be subtle variance between them, so they do not look exactly unified. But if a single designer does all of the smiley faces and another one does all the animals, then it’s more likely that those feel unified and whole”, Maheux explains.

Usually, revisions the studio is asked to do by the companies are about the facial expressions of the emojis. There are observations like “it is not sad enough”, “it is not happy enough” or “the eyebrow should look different”.

One of the most complicated emojis developed by IconFactory is the emoji that represents a pile of smiling feces (💩): “That is a really tricky emoji to get right. It’s a tricky balance between being gross and being funny”.

Another emoji that raised challenges was the emoji that represented a gun – “how threatening should it be, or maybe it should be a squirt gun or a laser gun”, the designer tells.

In terms of design, however, Maheux says that the most complicated is the variety of devices and usage scenarios of emojis. There are many types and sizes of screens, light modes or dark modes for the apps, and all of these are variables which designers have to take into account.

The WhatsApp emojis, says the co-founder of IconFactory, were created to be similar to those of Apple. “They wanted WhatsApp to feel familiar for Apple users. So, their style is similar, but not a copy. Similar kinds of lightning angles, appearances, and things like that, with a unique concept for each emoji.”

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Emojis used in the WhatsApp app. Photo: Shutterstock

The development of the Facebook Messenger emojis was, however, totally different. “It was a thing with the angle that was a kind of a three-quarter angle, it wasn’t straight on, the colors were very bright, very fun, very different from all the other kinds of emoji that we created”.

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Emoji set used in Facebook Messenger. Photo: Shutterstock

The Twitter emojis also had a unique style, says Ged Maheux: “They were completely flat, straight on, face forward, no shadow, no shading, just solid-colored shapes to represent those individual emoji.”

🫡 The emoji systems need more order in the future 

Even if in the next years it will develop more slowly, the emoji ecosystem will continue to expand with the introduction of new elements. Angela Guzman thinks that the multitude of emojis becomes harder and harder to navigate for the users. “At some point, I almost wish that we didn’t have so many, because it becomes difficult to find the right one. I almost wish it could be a search function or something”.

Ged Maheux also thinks that the future will bring more emojis, more and more easy to custom, but this comes coupled with the problem of the usage experience.

“We will have to adapt, as users, to much larger emoji ecosystems, a much easier way to create them and find them. It’s an interaction problem for users to find what they’re looking for quickly, because part of the reason for the emojis charm is to say much with typing little. You don’t want to have to type words”.

Keith Broni also says that the future of the emojis ecosystems is guided by development. The people ask for more and more varied and customizable emojis, and the discussions for creating new emojis will become more complex and more formalized, because the emoji system cannot develop to infinity.

“We need to make sure that we reduce the number of irrelevant or poorly used emojis, and that’s why Unicode is reducing the number of approvals, to make sure the ones they release have a strong sense of utility. The ecosystem has matured, we’ve had 10 years of learning. The future is stability because we will continue to be using emojis for as long as we are using digital texts to communicate”, says the editor-in-chief of Emojipedia.


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Andreea Bădoiu

Andreea lucrează în advertising, dar rămâne iremediabil îndrăgostită de jurnalism, de oameni și de poveștile lor. Absolventă de Jurnalism la Universitatea din București, în 2013, a lucrat câțiva ani ca editor tech și apoi ca redactor pentru o publicație online, după care s-a orientat către industriile creative. Continuă să creadă că jurnalismul e cea mai frumoasă meserie din lume și că poveștile ne aduc împreună și ne ajută să fim. Speră să-și păstreze curajul să scrie mai departe și să documenteze subiecte care să-i ajute pe ceilalți să descopere perspective noi.


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