Culture

An Inside Look Into The Secret World Of Emoji Making

There is no wine and beer emoji (it’s just an illusion), and no, cannabis will not be coming anytime soon.

by Edoardo Liotta
12 April 2019, 9:53am

Emojination designs for interracial couples coming end 2019.

Jennifer Lee was eating a dumpling, a photo of which she sent to her friend Yiying Liu. After Yiying responded with the fork and knife emoji, they both got into a discussion on how ridiculous it was that there was no dumpling emoji. “Every culture has their version of a dumpling, whether it’s empanadas, gyozas, ravioli or what not. I was thinking, whatever system is in place is clearly broken if there is no dumpling emoji,” Jenny, a producer, writer, and publisher, told VICE.

About 30 minutes after Jenny had shared photos of her meal, Yiying, who is also a designer, sent her a design of a dumpling with heart eyes. At this point, Jenny and Yiying knew they had to get it on to everyone’s phones – it was about time they took matters into their own hands. The time had come for the dumpling emoji.

dumpling hijab mooncake emoji
The dumpling, hijab and mooncake emoji designs that were submitted by Emojination before their creation.

But how? A Google search brought Jenny to the Unicode Consortium, and she quickly learned that emojis were regulated by a bunch of large tech companies who pay a whopping US$18,000 a year to have voting power in the organization’s committee. However, she found a loophole, which was to pay US$75 a year and join as an individual. This doesn’t give her voting power but allows members to get on the mailing lists and attend the meetings and conferences.

“That's what I did. I got on the list and I attended the next meeting,” she told VICE over FaceTime. “It was so weird. It was mainly old white men who were engineers, and they were regulating this emerging visual language for the entire world. I thought this was not a good cross-section. I thought there should be the voice of the people on the issue of emojis, so we created a little group called 'Emojination' whose motto is 'Emoji by the people for the people', and it basically kind of works for more inclusive and representative emojis.”

On top of her work in Emojination, Jenny has since become Vice Chair of the Unicode emoji sub-committee. She doesn’t have voting power, but that doesn’t matter because “things rarely come to a hard vote in Emojiland,” she stressed. “We usually decide on things unanimously.”

sloth butter swimsuit sari emoji
Emojination created a sloth, butter, one-piece swimsuit and Sari emoji. They will be released in the second half of 2019.

Emojination and Emojicon, which Yiying and Jenny started with ecosystem architect Jeanne Brooks, were immediately met with success. People everywhere were dying to get their hands on emoji making, and these platforms finally gave them a way in.

So far, the Emojination team has brought the hijab emoji, the women’s flat shoe, women’s one-piece bathing suit, a sari (coming soon) and more: ”Of the 70 or so emojis you got at the end of 2018, we did about 45 of them. By the end of next year, we will probably have done over 100 of the emojis.” The dumpling made it too.

plant wand cockroach needle emoji
Emojination's potted-plant and wand are shortlisted for a 2020 release. They planning on presenting the cockroach and needle emojis at the next meeting for consideration.

With these creations, Jenny’s team was looking to fill the gaps missing in emoji language. And although adding pivotal emojis relating to Asian culture was a success, it wasn’t a particular concern for her: “Asian representation is doing phenomenally well on the keyboard, given that Emoji comes from Japan. I think it was more like, how could there not be a dumpling? Another factor was, how could this be the group of people deciding on emojis for the world?”

Jenny’s mission to democratise the land of emojis has made the creation process more accessible to everyday users because essentially, anyone can now make an emoji.

The first step is to write a proposal. There's a checklist on the Unicode website of all the things that interested parties need to answer. Creators then have to provide a guidance image in multiple sizes and formats, then email it all to Unicode. The sub-committee will debate it, and if they like it, they will pass it onto the full Unicode committee, where the decision is made. If they don't like it, they will pass it back to the submitter. The majority of pitches go through Emojination though, as most individuals don’t have the appropriate experience to get an emoji accepted.

This process has become routine for Jenny now, as she has created and helped people create emojis for years. With this experience, comes a bunch of hilarious insider knowledge she was willing to share with VICE. For example, submissions for a cannabis emoji keep coming in, but consistently get rejected

happy tears flag emoji
The happy tears, fingers together, transgender flag and Aboriginal Australian flag were amongst the most popular requests in 2019 on Emojipedia. They have not been shortlisted however.

Jenny told VICE that it is because “the entire world doesn't have the same attitude towards it.” A similar example is that Muslim countries prohibit alcohol, so even if you think it's a wine emoji and a beer emoji, it’s not.” Apparently, it’s just a wine glass emoji and a beer glass emoji, and they just happen to be filled with a liquid that resembles wine and beer.

Another emoji that will not be coming anytime soon is the drone, because it is too new and “not stable,” Jenny shared.

The wine and beer scenario is just one example of how emoji creators respect inclusivity in their work. Gender representation is yet another example, which is just as big a debate in emojiland as it is in the real world.

Until about 2016, there were plenty of things men could be as emojis. For women, there were only a couple of options. “If you were a guy there were a bunch of roles you could have on the keyboard. You could be a police officer, a medic, Santa Claus or a Buckingham Palace guard even. If you were a woman, the four things you could be were a bride, princess, dancer and playboy bunny. That brought up a bunch of gender issues,” Jenny said.

disability emojis
Apple has created Emojis for disability representation. They are also coming this year.

By 2016, women finally got the representation they deserved through the doctor and businesswomen emojis among others, but this opened up another debate: the need for gender-neutral emojis. Firstly, non-binary individuals lack representation and two, many languages don’t give a gender to most words, yet you have to choose one when typing. “In many languages, words like doctor, teacher or child are gender neutral. In English and Chinese that is the case for example. In languages like French, they may tell you.”

There are actually three gender-neutral emojis currently: a child, an adult and an older adult. More will be coming soon.

gender neutral emoji
Gender neutral people holding hands coming this year. Design by Emojipedia.

Slowly, these additions are making the emoji keyboard more inclusive. But will all these new upcoming ones eventually make the emoji keyboard too big? Is there a limit? “I think there already are too many,” said Jenny. And anyone who has ever found themselves scrolling for what feels like hours just to find that fruit they wanted to use will agree as well. Not fun.

But there’s a rule: once an emoji, always an emoji, so none can be removed.

As for the overcrowding of emojis, the solution comes in how they’ll organise the keyboard, said Jenny: “What they will have to do is collapse them into a long-press. So the more obscure ones will be hidden. You know you don't really need 24 clocks, you can put one and long-press to choose the one you need.”

As great as it sounds, long-press won’t be coming to the emoji yet, as the limit has not been reached, apparently. In fact, more emojis will continue to be added each year, and Jenny gave VICE some hints about what is coming up.

One exciting addition coming in the second half of 2019 is a series of interracial couples. On making these, Jenny told VICE: “We don’t get paid, so working with partners helps us push for more fair emoji representation. We worked with Tinder to get the interracial couples. Adobe also gives us a small sponsorship to get more diverse and representative emojis in general, and they have been really important in all of this.”

interracial couple designs
Interracial couple emoji designs by Emojination.

Emojis are only officially approved once a year though, so we won’t know what is confirmed for another few months. However, Emojination has made a few that are shortlisted.

“We were surprised some basic things like window, ladder, rock, mirror and BBQ grill didn’t exist so we definitely will be getting those up,” she said. “We are also really excited about the needle because it got rejected twice. This time I'm like guys, we really fucking need the needle.”

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