A sampling of emojis designed by Aphee Messer of the Emojination organization.

Where Do Emojis Come From?

By Maya P. Lim

From etchings on cave walls to hieroglyphs on stone tablets, we've used tiny pictures to represent ideas for millennia. And we still do—the modern pictogram is the emoji. Adorning Facebook walls, Slack channels, Instagram feeds, and texts, emojis are part of our global lexicon, but you may not have considered how they come to be. It turns out that anyone can propose an emoji to the Unicode Consortium, a group that votes to approve them, but most people don't know of this opportunity, or how to pursue it.

Emojination is a grassroots organization shaping the emoji approval process. By providing writing and illustration support to anyone seeking to champion a new emoji, Emojination helps to bring more voices to the decision makers’ table. Its efforts to represent the needs of the people have spawned numerous emojis, including the hijab, the red envelope, and the DNA double helix. And, according to Emojination's co-founder Jennifer 8. Lee, there’s much more ahead.

A sampling of emojis that Emojination has proposed to the Unicode Consortium, some of which still await approval. The approval process can take more than 18 months. Emojis designed for Emojination by Yiying Lu (dumpling), Anna Smylie (DNA double helix), Baidu (red envelope), and Aphee Messer (all others shown).

THE DUMPLING THAT STARTED IT ALL

In August 2015, Lee was texting with her friend Yiying Lu when they realized there was no dumpling emoji. “I thought this was really weird,” says Lee. “Dumplings are so iconic, and every culture has their own version of a dumpling.”

She began researching where emojis come from and learned that the Unicode Consortium, a small group made mostly of tech companies (including Adobe, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft) is responsible for controlling all things emoji. Lee also discovered that, at the time, men were portrayed in many roles on the emoji keyboard, but there were only four women emoji roles: dancer, princess, bride, and the Playboy bunny.

Curious to learn more about the approval process, Lee attended a meeting of the Unicode Consortium. “I felt like the voice of the people was not being represented,” says Lee. “I wanted to help make emojis more inclusive.”

With the support of a Kickstarter campaign, Emojination was born.

PROPOSALS BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE

Since co-founding Emojination with Lu (who ultimately designed the dumpling emoji), Lee has helped to write countless emoji proposals. An emoji proposal details why a specific concept is important (based on historical and contemporary significance), shows why it would be a popular emoji, and presents a potential design. The Unicode Consortium then votes to approve the concept.

Of all the components to writing a proposal, gathering statistics to show desire for the proposed concept is the most challenging part. “We collect data from a lot of places," Lee says. "We compare search terms on Google Trends. We look on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media—anywhere that shows that it would be a popular emoji.”

Another challenge is finding a universal, standardizable look. “Many people have proposed menstruation-related emojis, but those emojis keep getting rejected,” says Lee. “It’s hard to design a symbol for this. A pair of bloody underwear doesn’t really represent menstruation; it’s just a pair of bloody underwear.”

An emoji can promote cultural inclusion—or exclusion. Lee recalls a debate over a potential stethoscope emoji proposal. “There were already medical emojis, like a building and an ambulance,” says Lee. “But in many parts of the world, the hospital may look like a hut, or there might not be ambulances. We saw the stethoscope as a basic, universal symbol for medical care.”

A universal symbol can promote cultural and social inclusion; a stethoscope symbolizes healthcare more universally than a white hospital building or an ambulance does. By welcoming community feedback on emoji design drafts, Emojination gathers perspectives that result in more inclusive emoji designs, such as a coin emoji with an abstract symbol (rather than one originally drawn with a number “1”), and a simple bowl of cereal (rather than one originally drawn with O-shaped pieces). Stethoscope, coins, and bowls with spoons designed by Aphee Messer for Emojination.

THE ART OF PROPOSING EMOJI DESIGNS

Because an emoji looks like and works like a symbol, emoji design is akin to logo design.

Aphee Messer is Emojination’s top contributing emoji designer. She's produced roughly 160 emoji designs, more than 70 of which have been approved so far. Her approach sounds strikingly similar to logo design.

“I start with a search engine and stock image search of the object, for photo references,” says Messer. “It’s useful to see other artists’ interpretations and to notice cultural variations. I’ll pick ones that I like, make a mood board of ideas, and start to put my own spin on them. Then I’ll share my drafts on Emojination’s Slack channel, take in feedback, edit, and hand off the final design to the person putting together the proposal.”

Messer assembles mood boards of stock images to inspire her emoji design process. Her resulting hut emoji is in the center. Mood board and hut emoji designed by Aphee Messer for Emojination.

Messer draws most of her emojis as vector graphics in Adobe Illustrator CC. For more complex emojis, she adds textures and shading in Adobe Photoshop CC. “It’s really important that the proposed emoji looks as polished as possible,” she says. “When I started, I didn’t always pay as close attention to certain details. But I’ve learned that these details matter. It makes the emoji stand out more in the proposal, and it can help it to pick up traction in the press.”

And beyond making a strong first impression, emoji designers must also adhere to certain standards; for instance, animals typically face to the left. Anything white should have light gray, diffuse shading around it. And, perhaps most important, all proposed emojis must fit within 18 by 18 pixels. Unicode provides design guidelines on its website to improve interoperability across platforms.

Following design standards may increase an emoji’s likelihood of receiving approval. Full-body animal emojis usually are left-oriented, and white objects should have gray shading. Hippo, kangaroo, sloth, llama, lobster, swan, teddy bear, and flamingo designed by Aphee Messer for Emojination.

Illustrating objects with this constraint of size and proportion takes some mental gymnastics. “I try to simplify things while keeping them recognizable,” says Messer. “I also try playing with the angles and proportions of things. A guitar is pretty long, but if you skew the proportions and rotate it, it will fit.”

Rotating objects and adjusting proportions can help objects to fit in a small, square space while staying recognizable. Ukulele, skateboard, and magic wand designed by Aphee Messer for Emojination.

According to Messer, the hardest part of designing a great emoji isn’t about getting the shading or proportions right. It’s about capturing cultural nuances.

“When I was working on the tamales emoji,” says Messer, “someone pointed out that no one eats one tamal by itself; you always eat multiple tamales at a time!” She also learned that wrapping materials vary with region. With this feedback, Messer modified the design to include multiple tamales and proposed two colors of wrappers.

Colors can be key to cultural nuances. Tamales can be yellowish with corn husk wrappings or greenish with banana leaf wrappings. Ponchos can be found in many different colors, so Messer designed one in neutral browns and grays to be more inclusive. Tamales and poncho designed by Aphee Messer for Emojination.

Some items look different across and within cultures, presenting another design challenge. Messer wrestled with this while designing an emoji of fufu, a staple food in many African cultures. Since fufu is typically eaten with a variety of other items, Messer decided to depict it with a stew-like side dish. “My latest round of feedback was to make the emoji look meatier,” she says.

The evolution of a fufu emoji: The first draft (left) looked too much like chicken and mashed potatoes. The second draft (middle) took on a more stew-like look. The third draft (right) features a chunkier stew. Fufu designed by Aphee Messer for Emojination.

Cultural insights are key to Messer’s designs. “I have lots of friends from different cultures, so I’m able to get their perspectives on my drafts. And often, the person submitting an idea through Emojination has cultural ties to the emoji idea, so their feedback matters a lot to me, too.”

After the emoji proposal is submitted to Unicode, Messer rarely hears back. “I did get some feedback from the Unicode subcomittee about a birth control emoji I designed,” she says. “I had drawn the pills in a circular pack, but they thought the lid took up too much space and asked if I could try a top-down view with less of the lid showing [left].”

If Unicode approves a concept, the proposed emoji design associated with the concept may guide how different platforms design their versions of the emoji. One example is the cupcake emoji, which Messer proposed as a chocolate cake in a teal wrapper with pink frosting. Google kept the cake chocolate and frosting pink but used a bright blue wrapper. Meanwhile, Apple chose a clear wrapper and white frosting on yellow cake. Both Google and Apple added sprinkles, which Messer calls “a superb touch.”

Official emoji designs may differ from the proposed emoji look. The proposed cupcake emoji (left, by Aphee Messer for Emojination) was accepted but modified, such as by Google (middle, Android 9.0) and Apple (right, iOS 12.1).

A CHANGING LANGUAGE

Emojis have become a global, digital language, connecting cultures and bringing clearer expression to our fingertips.

“This visual language is so important,” says Messer. “We now have an emoji keyboard next to our standard alphabet keyboard, which shows how much we value the emoji language. And it's not the same as writing with words. It’s concise and iconic. Nothing says, ‘I'm laughing so hard’ like a string of five laughing/crying emojis.”

Both Messer and Lee are optimistic about the continued evolution of the emoji language. Emojination has recently completed a proposal for an interracial couple emoji, hoping to reflect our increasingly diverse relationships. “We need emojis that represent our changing cultures,” says Lee. “I'm Oneida from my dad's side," Messer adds. "There aren't any emojis right now that are specifically Native American-themed.” 

In the future, emojis may shape our cultures as well as reflect it. Lee notes, “It’s going to be interesting to see how emoji use changes as children grow up writing and reading with emojis.”