We Talked to a Typeface Designer About Creating Emojis for Unicode

Paul D. Hunt of Adobe talks about emoji diversity and more.

by Leif Johnson
Jul 17 2016, 6:00pm

Image: Frank Behrens/Flickr.

It's World Emoji Day, and for the occasion, I had a chance to shoot some questions off to Paul D. Hunt, Senior Typeface Designer and Font Developer at Adobe, who's Adobe's backup representative in working with the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee to create new emojis. (Ken Lunde, his colleague, is the primary representative.)

Hunt's been on the job for a little over a year now, and so far he's mainly provided black and white artwork for emoji candidates that might make it into future versions of the Unicode standard. A typeface designer by training, Hunt designs emojis that function as a traditional font, and this font in turn can be used in Unicode's character reference charts and other documents.The number of useable emojis gets larger every year, and Hunt's answers give us a better idea of how the ones that finally wind up on our phones get chosen.

Motherboard: Emojis are such a widespread phenomenon. What kind of design work did you do previously that prepared you for such an undertaking?

Paul D. Hunt: Well, I am a typeface designer and font developer by trade. The role means that I typically work on designing new typefaces for various writing systems, e.g. the Latin, Greek and Cyrillic alphabets; and the Gurmukhi syllabary used for writing Punjabi language. The second role means that I can take letters designed by myself or others and compile them into working font software. Much of my work at Adobe has been working on writing systems of the world including those mentioned above as well as Arabic, Hebrew, Devanagari, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, and Tamil, all of which are complex scripts that require extensive font programming. Both of these skills come in handy when making an emoji font. Letters and emojis are both forms of symbols used for digital communication. Letters are abstract symbols that map to sounds, emojis are more concrete symbols that attempt to convey emotion or concepts visually. In designing the emoji characters for my font I have tried to employ a simplified, iconic style that can be adapted by other emoji designers who can use my work as a reference.

Image: Paul Hunt.

Is there any kind of testing process to make sure multiple cultures worldwide interpret emojis in more or less the same way?

I do not believe that this aim is possible. As a form of communication, the meaning associated with emojis relies heavily upon the culture and associations that the transmitter and the receiver bring to the conversation. Various colors have divergent associations based on culture. This is also true for other symbols. Did you know that the BANK emoji carries a connotation of avoiding work responsibilities for Japanese users due to the presence of the letters 'BK' on the original Docomo artwork? Were you even aware of its existence? And what does that smiley poo mean anyway? It signifies whatever you want it to, and in most cases it must be interpreted in context of a complete message which hopefully includes some written language as clues to the intent of the transmitter.

There are a ton of "Emojis That Should Exist" articles on the web. Do you ever take these into consideration when coming up with new emojis?

Personally, yes. I recently made a formal proposal for the addition of an ORANGE HEART emoji based upon my own wants and what I felt was an obvious hole in the offering of various heart emojis. You can't send a complete string of rainbow-colored hearts without orange, or at least this was my argument. I had to write up my reasoning for adding this character to the standard based on strict rules of inclusion. As part of my proposal, I cited Emojipedia's 2016 list of top requested emojis. It would be great to allow more people to submit requests to Unicode directly, although that would create some serious implementation problems in ensuring that the system would not be abused to artificially favor particular concepts.

Along the same line, what's the process like for creating new emojis? How many people are involved, what kinds of studies are undertaken?

My process is to first, look at the artwork submitted as part of a proposal for initial concept ideas. Next, I google the concept term plus 'icon' to see various ways in which it has been distilled into an iconic form. Then I begin drawing the artwork digitally directly in RoboFont, an application made specifically for font development. During this process I try to show my artwork to colleagues to get feedback. Once I am happy with the result, I pass the artwork on to the UES and we discuss it during our meeting. I take notes and feedback from these discussions on how to improve my work to make it something that the committee feels is appropriate for their uses. I then revise my artwork, compile a font and disseminate the font to those who need it for document creation. When the time comes for me to make corresponding color artwork for my font, I will be creating SVG artwork with Adobe Illustrator to add the color dimension to my emoji font project.

Image: Unicode

There was recently a big internet-wide discussion about bringing more diversity to emojis and stepping away from the ostensibly neutral "Simpsons yellow." Even after color pickers were introduced, there were still some complaints. What were some of the challenges of creating new emojis in response?

Emojis as a form of communication is still in its infancy and evolving very rapidly. If you stop to think that prior to 2011 emoji usage was fairly limited worldwide and look at how pervasive it is now you can hopefully start to get more of a big-picture view on this process.

Currently, there are very few emoji fonts or emojis sets for people to use to express themselves. At present there is no way to ensure consistent transmission of the exact image with the subtleties that you intend to convey. I'm hoping that more emoji fonts are developed for the purpose of broadening emoji's usefulness as a communication tool. Perhaps someone could do a whole set as girls' faces, or emojis with ginger hair, or a set designed with retro flair. Personally, I want to develop a Poomoji font that maps all of the expressions to the poo body; I think that would be funny

. The possibilities are really endless. However, for this concept to really work, we would need something like Typekit for emojis that could transmit the exact representation of the emoji that the author wants to her intended audience. I hope that more emoji fonts and better technology are developed as I think that it would resolve a lot of issues we currently face with the limits of diversity in using emojis to communicate effectively.

So many people these days just select emojis (especially the more complex ones) from a menu. How many people, would you say, actually know how to enter the actual codes for many of them?

This is really hard to say. I think that you would need to do a fairly extensive study to answer this question. However, I do think that there should be additional methods of adding emojis to your communication. Some platforms, including Slack and GitHub, employ what are known as short codes or short names, language descriptions formatted between a pair of colons, and then translate these sequences into the corresponding Unicode character. For our ORANGE HEART example, that would look something like :orange_heart:. I intend to include functionality into my font that follows these conventions as well as giving options for other languages besides English. In fact, I am advocating for people to start using this syntax in online communication (using English language descriptions to begin with) when there is currently no emoji for an image that they would like to convey. This could possibly help with the problem of determining what new emojis are required by emoji users.

Some people say that emojis can be used as a type of written language that doesn't require traditional words. Is this mainly unintentional, or do you actually test them out to see if they can be used as such?

I reject the idea that emoji is a language by our conventional definition of a system for representing speech. As concrete imagery, I do not believe that we can impose a strict grammar on emojis to make it map directly to language. In fact, I sincerely hope that this does not happen. I believe that the very purpose of emojis is not to convey some linguistic phoneme explicitly, but to communicate imagery and emotions that are usually interpreted more concretely. I have a theory on this that I am still working out, but basically it is based on the idea that there are two cognitive processes that go on in our brain as we seek to interpret the world around us: one is logical and linear the other is intuitive and holistic. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen refers to these as systematizing and empathic cognition functions and our brain does these two seemingly opposing computations all at once. I want to do more research, but I believe that written language stimulates the portion of our brain that is more systematizing and abstract while imagery enters neural pathways that map to a more concrete and empathic understanding of the information we glean from our senses. While not language, when used together in writing emojis help us to better communicate by stimulating a fuller complement of our neural pathways and help us to convey meaning and understand more easily. At least that is the theory and I would like to study this more to find if my instincts on this are correct.

Image: David Parry/PA Wire/Flickr.

Have you ever had to pull some emojis from the official list, and why? If not, were there some that got pulled from the last minute. What were some of them, and why were they pulled?

I only know of two Unicode characters that were ratified for inclusion to the standard that were later removed from the set of Unicode characters that have been agreed upon as belonging to the set we call emoji. These are RIFLE and PENTATHLON. These were originally conceived to provide more sport-related emoji to the set. Later on some of the major implementers decided they did not want to support these as they did not want to be perceived as supporting the use of firearms. At least this is my understanding of the reasoning behind these decisions. I can see the benefits of inclusion and exclusion. But for the sake of avoiding controversy, I think that the right decision was probably made.

At this point, do you think there are now too many emojis or too few?

Personally, too few. Of course it is a hard question as the Unicode body does not want to get mired down in adding an endless number of small pictures to the standard. It's a slippery slope and some emoji critics feel that we have already gone too far in the direction of adding images to Unicode. I think the end goal will be to try to provide as many emoji options as possible in a way that is analogous to how fonts work.

Of all the emojis you've created, which one's your favorite?

My husband and I communicate a lot with emojis and have a lot of inside jokes and meanings attached to the way that we use them. I call him my Mr Sprinkleheart and that means something very specific to us about the love, fun and magic that are part of our relationship. Because of this association, I would have to say that

is my favorite along with