If we created emoji from scratch today, how would we do it?

This is an opinion piece by me and does not reflect the views of anyone else.

A year ago I was at the Tribeca Film Festival and saw a fascinating documentary. Picture Characters follows the story of several people and their attempts to add a new emoji.

Anyone can create an emoji, but getting it added is difficult. Emoji are standardized by the Unicode Consortium, and they release a new batch of emoji along with all other codepoints that every operating system and application uses.

Of the hundreds or thousands of emoji proposals made each year, only a few dozen are added. I can sympathize with the work. They have to ensure that all devices and software follow this standard. Each emoji font needs to be updated by professional designers to be consistent and this happens continually. Keyboard software needs to be updated. There’s a limit to the amount of time that can be spent each year.

There are more variations of emoji being added. You can choose skin tone and hair color in emojis now. For family emojis you get even more choice. Representation is good, and popular. However, at a certain point we face a technical limit in how emoji are designed and implemented.

There is a hijab emoji now, but there is no scientist with a hijab emoji. If it was proposed as a new emoji, it might not be approved. It’s too specific. There’s already scientist variants for gender and skin tone. Across all professions, you’d need to add new emoji for a hijab and each skin tone, creating an M*N problem. Each emoji is defined as its own vector in a font file that is increasing in storage space. It doesn’t scale.

Personally I would enjoy seeing a scientist with a beard emoji to better represent myself, but I am in the same boat.

Additionally, the dependency on the Unicode Consortium means you need to depend on them to add a scientist with a hijab emoji or it doesn’t happen. I don’t think they want to be in that position, and they’ve explored efforts to scale emoji. I am proposing my own attempt to do this.

Face emoticons consist of several parts: eyes, a mouth, and often miscellaneous subcomponents.

What if these parts were composed at runtime by the font rendering engine? There is precedent to do this. Unicode has a feature called Combining Characters which allow multiple characters to overlay one another for things like accents. Zalgo Text shows the extent that this can be done.

I just published the Emoticon Composer Font on GitHub, a first draft of this capability. Going to the demo site allows you to try building your own emoji and fully explore the potential of this idea.

Faf

In the font, uppercase letters map to eyes. Lowercase letters map to a mouth. Numbers can provide additional features.

Now, adding a mustache to an emoticon is easy. You can just add ‘f’ after the mouth and it appears above. Adding a second ‘f’ adds a goatee underneath. Because it’s composable, there is just one mustache character and it works across all possible combinations.

Faf

Because it’s a font and not an image, existing font features like color and italics can be applied without any additional work. As it is a vector, it can scale in size just like other fonts. This allows it to be embedded within text.

Brf33

New keyboard software may need to be designed to properly handle this new composable behavior. It could be presented as a QWERTY keyboard, but each letter replaced by a symbol. It could allow you to save presets so that you always have certain features.

Ckff8

Composing characters together allow for a much wider range of possible emoji without having to get each one approved. If there is a new set of eyes added, it can immediately be combined with other features, reducing the barrier to entry.

Ww0

When you’re concerned with reducing font size and time constraints, you may not want to add emoji that look too similar to existing emotions. In a composable model, you don’t need to specifically implement any one emotion. You give the users the building blocks they need to fully express themselves.

Ha33

Hot wings too spicy? There’s an emoticon for that. Need it to look a little more like you? Just add a mustache.

Kc1

Just went on an intense rollercoaster? There’s an emoticon for that.

Kc17

Intense but fun? Add a heart.

Ydf6

Not amused by composing emoticons? Now you can let me know.

Auf2

Think it’s a great idea? Go ahead and play with the demo. You can check out the font source on GitHub and open it up with the Glyphs software. Let me know what you think of the idea and what potential it may have in better representing the vast range of emotions people feel every day.

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Nick Felker

Social Media Expert -- Rowan University 2017 -- IoT & Assistant @ Google