Emoji Ambivalence

In December 2015 I spotted an unconventional SKULL AND CROSSBONES ☠ [U+2620] on a passing truck transporting explosive goods in Gujarat, India. Needless to say I immediately demanded a whole set of emoji based on it, and needless to add nobody volunteered.

So here I am, a year later, trying myself as an emoji designer and simultaneously exploring possibilities of bringing this font to life. And that, I discovered, is a bottomless pit if I’ve ever seen one.

Take this for example: To my knowledge there’s only one emoji character with glasses, the NERD FACE [U+1F913] (what’s with the buck teeth, btw?). Can’t I have a face with a regular set of teeth and glasses? Or a character with a different facial expression? Or with sunglasses? And can my face be a pilot with appropriate aviator shades, please? Well, of course! It’s a font after all and we all know that fonts are great with can do context.

The emoji rabbit hole is pretty crowded these days. With the iOS 10.2 update a couple of months ago we witnessed another 100 or so additions to our emoji set. Among other emoji, diverse characters and new professions were added, many of those in multiple skin tones. Adobe’s Paul D. Hunt is also on the case. (I can recommend spending some time with Source Emoji’s alpha release.) Most of the latest emoji character set additions don’t have Unicode code points assigned. Instead they are shaped with contextual glyph substitution, similar to my expressive, spectacled pilot:
WOMAN [U+1F469] + ZERO WIDTH JOINER [U+200D] + AIRPLANE [U+2708] = female pilot
MAN [U+1F468] + ZERO WIDTH JOINER [U+200D] + AIRPLANE [U+2708] = male pilot

Once there’s wider support for Unicode’s ZWJ (zero width joiner) sequences more users will be able to choose from an even greater number of options for certain glyphs.

Emoji font makers sure seem busy these days—I guess I’m not the first one pushing for more variety. The demand for more skin colour nuances (variable colour fonts anyone?), interracial emoji couples, or freckle frequency seems infinite. And yet I now wonder where we are going to draw the line. When will we stop extending our emoji vocabulary?

John Hudson summed up the evolution of Unicode encoded emoji:

‘So Unicode encoded a set of what were essentially compatibility characters to support the superset of emoji images used by major cellular phone companies, and was immediately beset by requests for additional emoji characters, and for ways to modify the existing ones. Ironically, the methods devised to modify emoji characters, e.g. to represent diverse skin tones, immediately adopt the syntactic methods of language, of noun+adjective. Now people need to figure out how to ‘say’ things in the emerging syntax of emoji.’

Emoji are attractive to me because of their ease of use. I use them to complement written language, to give indications of subtle expressions that can’t easily be conveyed in writing, like sarcasm. In addition, I like that emoji can be ambiguous and, depending on the context they are used in, take on a whole different meaning 💅

But I, too, wonder how the call for more explicit emoji will affect communication in the long run. And, at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I doubt I will want to use emoji in a different way than I do today. Marc Durdin explains in the same article:

‘This ambiguity inherent in emoji makes it difficult to communicate meaning. A smiley face can be helpful in communicating emotion, but what meaning does U+1F481 INFORMATION DESK PERSON really convey? In order for emoji to be really useful in general communication, the set would have to be continually expanded. The corresponding increase in complexity in typing or selecting emoji suggests that they will remain at most an amusing adjunct to classical modes of communications.’

Now, you might ask yourself why a person who’s pretty saturated with emoji would spend her weekend making an emoji font. I really don’t know. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make much use of the majority of glyphs available in my own font in my daily communication. I guess for now I enjoy exploring the possibilities of a relatively small set of Unicode encoded emoji.

List of some so far (to my knowledge anyway) missed opportunities in emoji font engineering:
1 – Mirroring pointing characters, like 🚂🚜🚒🚗🚐🚤🚝🚲🐅🐑🐎🐤🐓🐫🏊🏄🚶🚴🏇📢🐌✈️🚀🏂🔙, depending on the direction of the script they’re used in, for example:

2 – Optical sizes. Or perhaps I need new glasses.
3 – Stereotype alternates? Think 👗 DRESS [U+1F457] + 🇩🇪 REGIONAL INDICATOR SYMBOL LETTER D [U+1F1E9] + REGIONAL INDICATOR SYMBOL LETTER E [U+1F1EA] = dirndl

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