What It Takes to Design Emoji


In May 2015, Domino’s Pizza rolled out a new campaign. To order a pizza, customers wouldn’t need to open the restaurant chain’s website or even install an application. They wouldn’t need to complete an order or make a phone call. All they had to do was tweet a pizza emoji to @dominos. Customers would first have to set up a Domino’s account, select a default pizza, and connect their account to their Twitter name but once they’d done all that, they could order dinner by simply tweeting an emoji. They wouldn’t even have to write “I’d like a pizza, please.” A tiny picture of a pizza would do it.

The campaign worked. In the days after it went live, online orders increased by 50 percent. The functionality remains as part of Domino’s Anyware, a suite of ways of quickly loading up on pizza using methods ranging from Alexa to smart watches.

Domino’s isn’t the only company to see the commercial value in talking the language of symbols. A year earlier, Taco Bell had launched a Change.org petition to persuade the Unicode Consortium to release a taco emoji. The campaign collected 33,000 signatures and took just seven months to achieve victory. The Deadpool movie marketed itself using an emoji of a skull, a poop, and the letter L. Other companies, particularly those aimed at a young audience, have worked emojis into their marketing messages, a way of showing that they speak the same language as their customers.

That language is now more complex than ever although its first words were simple enough. In 1998, Shigetaka Kurita was a 25-year-old employee at NTT DoCoMo, a Japanese mobile phone carrier. The company offered subscribers a messaging system but messages were limited to just 250 characters. That left plenty of room for misunderstanding. Text messages lack body language and context. A quick text asking someone where they are can be either accusatory or curious depending on the tone of their voice. A text has no tone of voice. The addition of a smiley face or a frown would add tone and depth to text-based communications.

Kurita looked for inspiration in manga and in pictograms, such as the symbols used in weather forecasts. Working with a grid that was just twelve pixels square, his options were limited. The even number of pixels meant that the images didn’t have a single center, but within a month, Kurita had managed to create 176 black and white images. They included zodiac signs, card suits, hearts, and a couple of cat faces. The pictures were called “emojis,” using the Japanese words for “picture” (eh), “write” (mo), and “character” (ji). The closest the first emojis came to smileys were a simple set of five expressions. Using just eyes and a mouth, users could express happiness, anger, sadness, surprise, and confusion.

Over the next decade, emojis remained a Japanese phenomenon. Although they were copied by other Japanese telecoms companies, the symbols weren’t standardized. Someone who received an emoji sent by a friend using a different cellular network might see an empty square or receive a different image. Each cellular service encoded the emojis differently. In 2010, with the iPhone three years old and people increasingly using mobile devices and text to communicate around the world, corporations, governments, research institutions, industry groups, and individuals involved in fonts and text processing formed the Unicode Consortium to establish and maintain a set of standards. Each emoji would have a unique code that represented an agreed idea. Sending a smiley from a phone in Japan would always deliver a smiley wherever the recipient was located and whichever platform, program, or language they were using.

Over the following years, the number of agreed unicodes has expanded. The current standard, Unicode 13.0, allocates code to 3,304 emojis. An emoji tracker counts usage in real time. The most popular emojis are tears of laughter, a heart, and a smiley with hearts for eyes.

But the Unicode Standard only provides general guidelines. It tells platforms that U+1F600, for example, must represent a smiling face but it doesn’t tell platforms how that face should appear. The shape of the character can “vary significantly,” the consortium says, but “designers should maintain the same ‘core’ shape, based on the shapes used mostly commonly in industry practice.” Emoji used for people and body parts, the Consortium continues, should also not be overly specific, and should be “as neutral as possible regarding race, ethnicity, and gender.” The emojis should have a narrow, contrasting border to ensure that they can stand out against any background color, and they should have a square aspect ratio, a derivation from their Japanese origins.

The New Language of Emojis

That leaves plenty of room for creativity and for different communication brands to produce emojis that suit their style. The 3,304 emojis now represent more than 143,000 different character designs across platforms as varied as Twitter and Samsung, Facebook and Apple. Someone who receives a smiley in a text on their Samsung Galaxy sent by a friend using an iPhone will always receive a smiling face but that smiley will look slightly different on each device.

Emojis Must Be Unique, Fun…and Very Small

So what goes into creating these designs? How do designers produce sets of characters that reflect the brands and platforms that want to use them, while ensuring that each emoji follows the Unicode guidelines?

The Iconfactory has been around since 1996, two years before Shigetaka Kurita began work on that first set of emojis. Its three founding members, Talos Tsui, Corey Marion, and Ged Maheux, have now grown into a team of eleven that produces icons, user interfaces, websites, software for iOS and macOS, and branding and illustrations. The company has made icons for Windows XP, Windows Vista, Autodesk, LEGO, and Facebook, among others, and has also designed emojis for WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter.com. For Maheux, designing emoji is as complex as any other design problem.

Emoji, he says, need to communicate quickly and effectively at all sizes including the very small versions seen on mobile keyboards. Companies want styles and approaches that are unique to their brand. And they also have to be fun. “People love emoji and they want them to communicate the emotions they need in a single image so its important to get them right,” he says. “Expressing those emotions in a smiley face can be tricky and sometimes it takes lots of revisions to get it just right.”

The designs then go into production and the Iconfactory creates the artwork and visual assets needed for each one. Part of the process also includes testing the emojis in the application and comparing the designs to those used on other platforms. Often, the designs will need to be modified to make them stand apart or to bring them closer to the Unicode standard described for that icon.

So emoji designers like Ged Maheux face three challenges as they start work on new character sets. First, they need to translate the description for each of the 3,304 Unicodes into a tiny symbol that’s fun and inviting, and that can be clearly understood by a sender and a recipient. The descriptions themselves are kept simple: “weary face”; “loudly crying face”; “cat face with wry smile.” Designers then need to make sure that that design matches the client’s brand and style while standing apart from the designs used on other platforms.

But they also have to keep up with the changes to the Unicode Standard and to its character set. Unicode 13.1, which rolls out in 2021, will add another 217 new characters to the emoji alphabet, including bearded women, a face in the clouds, and a burning heart.

The big movement in emoji design at the moment though, is a broadening of diversity. Each human figure now comes in a range of skin tones so that users can always find a symbol that looks like them. Last year, both Apple and Google released a set of gender-neutral emojis for people who identify as non-binary. Much of the change focused on hair styling, which produced a kind of mullet. The non-binary oval facial shape falls somewhere between female emojis’ round heads and the square heads used by male emojis. Merpeople swapped their seashell bikini tops for crossed arms or unisex tops, and vampires lost their bow ties. The addition of same-sex and non-binary couples has also allowed everyone to use an emoji that matches the way they live.

Despite that focus on inclusion though, platforms have faced criticism for assuming a particular look for gender-neutral people, and for enforcing one particular stereotype in an area that’s all about breaking norms. The criticism does, however, show just how seriously people take the symbols on their phones and the importance they place on platforms’ reflecting who they see themselves.

The growth in diversity also creates a new problem. Although Ged Maheux welcomes the addition of genders and gender-neutral designs to emoji iconography, he notes that the constant growth of symbols might damage the ease of communication that emojis were designed to create. “As the lexicon continues to expand… it’s going to be harder and harder to find that exact emoji you want when you are typing out a text,” he says. “Hopefully platform guardians like Apple and Google will continue to improve the ways we find and choose emoji in the future.”

That’s looking for a technical solution to what’s increasingly becoming a linguistic problem. Android, iOS, and WhatsApp may rely on lists of frequently used symbols to help users filter the thousands of options available but brands will have to track not just which symbols customers use but how they integrate them into conversation. A language supplement that started with just 176 symbols, of which only a handful were genuinely useful, and helped to enhance text-based conversations, has now become strong enough to support entire dialogues. Young users expect to pepper their communications with emojis that add emotion to their chats and they want to see a broad range of different images that they can use.

For brands, that means continually adding new characters to their emoji sets as the Unicode Standard expands. It means updating their own designs so that they stay fresh, fun, and distinct even as other platforms create their own sets. It also means keeping up with how users are integrating emojis into their conversations so that brands can match their style and the constantly developing use of emojis in language.

And as it becomes harder and slower for people to find the emojis they want, brands will also have to keep an eye out for the development of newer, faster, and more fun ways of communication. Hungry customers can’t yet order a pizza by sending a gif to a Domino’s Twitter account but how long before they can pick up a pie by adding an Instagram filter to a photo or uploading a TikTok dance move?

Emoji designs might be numerous, varied, and creative, but in the end it’s users who turn them into language, and it’s brands that have to work to keep up.

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