The past, present and future of the emoji, according to Google’s Jennifer Daniel

Google's Jennifer Daniel on how emojis work, and what the future holds for this most visual form of communication.


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Most of the time we send emoji reflexively, almost without thinking, taking for granted that the person receiving them will share our understanding of what they all mean in any given context. The truth is that’s only the case because of people like Jennifer Daniel. She is the creative director of Google’s emoji programme and spends her days debating which emotions, concepts and relationships warrant being “emojified”, designing the ones that make the cut to ensure they fit a “Googley” aesthetic (according to Jennifer, a combination of approachability, humility and cuteness), and then witnessing how the world’s communicators adopt them and use them in surprising and creative ways.

The designer, a former visual journalist at both The New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek, has given more thought than most to the expressive power of emoji and what the future might hold for this particularly visual form of communication. Here, she tells us how we got to where we are today, with over 3,000 emoji in use, and offers up some predictions on what we might see from the world of emoji in the coming years. Naturally, expect more emoji than you’ve ever seen in an It’s Nice That Q&A before – oh, and words like “emojify” too.


Frequently Used Emojis by Toph Tucker

It’s Nice That: We’d love to know a bit more about your role working on emoji. How does your average day play out?

Jennifer Daniel: I’m going to say something that may make some people clutch their pearls: My general approach to work has no defined process at all. I’m drawn towards opportunities to do things I haven’t done before. It’s about learning. I’m not really a master of anything, I just know enough to be dangerous. 😉 My career has always been about working with different types of people and learning different things from them and having projects that I don’t really know how to solve and that can be solved a million different ways.

This is all to say my average day is just about being curious (punctuated with meetings and Google’s bottomless coffee). Creative chaos has an important role when operating with a standards body like Unicode or within a large organisation like Android or Google, which requires procedure. Product LOVES process. PROCESS scales. No process is CHAOS. But the universe was created from chaos. 💫

INT: You said you work with a standards body? What is that?

JD: A unique aspect of my job involves participating with an external non-profit called the Unicode Consortium. They standardise the way text is encoded on the internet. Nowadays we take it for granted that you can open up an email or a website and be able to read it, but when the internet was new people were looking at websites and seeing jumbled-up nonsense on the screen, because there was no method of encoding that supported the world’s dialects. Unicode stepped in and made it possible to digitise the world’s languages. They are also responsible for emoji encoding, which is how when I send you an emoji from my Pixel you can read it on your computer of choice.

I also work across a number of Android and Google products. If there is a method of composing or text-input, emoji are not far behind. 😜 My responsibilities include reviewing emoji proposals, consulting with experts on the subject matter (ranging from accordion historians to skydivers to the National Association of the Deaf), designing the strategy around what to emojify and the experience using them. Emoji exist in a deeply interesting and technically complex space, which requires working across company lines but also with font specialists to innovate on font technology, with the search team to improve prediction and suggestion, and of course, with input so your experience using emoji can operate at the speed of language.

INT: What have you been focusing on recently?

JD: Mostly researching and designing emoji draft candidates that will be announced in March. Take, for example, the feather emoji. There are a number of types of feathers, each different depending on the bird. To be able to craft a design that is definitively and prototypically “feather-like” requires consulting with ornithologists and getting consensus with other operating systems to reduce complications that come with fragmentation.

There are 66 new emoji on the horizon. A few were proposed and authored by Android including Smile with Single Tear and Two People Hugging. We also co-authored the Transflag emoji proposal and we’re thrilled to see that coming to Android devices soon.

INT: How did you start working in this area and what initially attracted you to it?

JD: I suspect most people see their careers as linear – moving from one job to the next – but I unsubscribed from that a long time ago. Once I stopped defining myself by what I make or what people call me (for example, treating illustration and journalism as separate things), I was able to do so much more. Those are not skills that are mutually exclusive. I also see a lot of similarities between my previous life in journalism and what I do now. When working in news, you have a responsibility to tell other people’s stories and explain what, how, why, when, who. I have a similar approach with our emoji work. When a proposal comes across our desk, we try to understand what its contribution to the emoji ecosystem as a whole might be, how it offers value in a communication context, who it is for, and if it has demonstrated a long-established place in culture.

INT: Could you give us a little more context as to how and why our visual vocabulary has grown so much over the past ten years?

JD: Technology has determined so much of how we communicate. In a way, we’re returning to an era that the birth of the printing press squeezed away. Words and pictures haven’t always been separate. Before mass literacy, we had illuminated manuscripts, paintings, and murals that told stories. And now, with the rise of the internet and digital communication, this has effectively put image-making back in the hands of the people. Previously it took a certain kind of expertise and finance to make and distribute images, but now you don’t have to have a tonne of resources or talent to make them.

I suppose the expectation of immediateness has resulted in more informal communication, which is fairly “new” given that the written word used to be so much more formal. Emoji and emoticons give us a sense of gesture, body language, and tone of voice that is lost when not speaking face-to-face. Plain text communicates what I mean but maybe not how I feel. There’s also a whole range of tools and * punctuation * to make it clear that I’m joking or if I’m to be taken seriously, contextualising meaning and indicating intention.


Jennifer’s desktop as of 17 December 2019 at 12:52pm

INT: You’ve spoken before about how texting is much closer to speaking than it is to writing. How do you see this developing in the future?

JD: I really hope we see language used less as a tool for demonstrating intellectual dominance (lampooning someone for typos or misspellings) and used more as a way to understand each other. It wasn’t long ago that people were saying emoji were going to result in the decline of writing and yet it’s quite obvious that has not happened. This is an easy trap to fall into. I too found myself baulking at Google’s Autodraw when it first came out (how dare you ascribe what is the perfect drawing of a shoe!).

However, I love this op-ed that Gretchen McCulloch wrote for The New York Times from the perspective of 200 years in the future when people have nostalgia for “the good old days of quaint emoji”. She reminds us that the invention of the camera didn’t kill other kinds of visual art. And these kinds of advances in technology (AI-augmented canvases) “may even lead to a great expansion in drawing ability, as sketching becomes something we do every day as a conversation, rather than the exclusive domain of the artist, just like writing did in the early 21st Century”. I love that. I do believe that keyboards that limit themselves to just a method of text input are going to fall behind and become nothing more than typewriters.

INT: How do you personally feel about the development of emoji in recent years. Are there certain ones you use regularly or that you’re particularly fond of?

JD: As Android (and now others) roll out more ambiguous and inclusive designs for emoji, a significant acknowledgement is happening: our emoji are moving away from “heterosexuals are the default” to “here are two people, here is a family”. I think that is really important. Sometimes progress is reversing legacy decisions.

I want to emojify concepts people find useful. Once I understood how emoji are used to convey emotion, intent, body language, and volume it totally changed my perspective on what to prioritise. The emoji bubbling to the top of the frequently used charts aren’t random tiny illustrations like 🥟 🦞 and 🧻 . Emoji that are emblems with well-defined meanings are extremely popular. Like 🔥 when something is LIT or 🎉 to denote enthusiasm or 🌹 as a token of love.

That being said, the value of emoji should not be just limited by frequency. I’d like to see us find a way to measure impact when emoji are used as self-identification – for example, in bios or handles on social media. I suspect many emoji which aren’t frequently used in messaging are nonetheless useful if they resonate so deeply that people are defining themselves by it (for example, 👩‍💻 vs. 😂 ). It’s just a hypothesis.

I LOVE hearing how people use emoji and how they are repurposed to mean something entirely new. For example, I use the cactus emoji when I’m on my period. Or, another good example – I have a friend who texts 🤸‍♀️ 🕳 when she’s having a bad day.

There is a space to be infinitely creative with language, just as much as we are with music and art. Slang is dynamic – 🛀 can mean whatever people need it to mean. Language emerges from human minds interacting with one another. Debates surrounding if an emoji means X or Y are largely missing the point. It’s possible that “Person with Folded Hands” ( 🙏 ) is BOTH a high five AND prayer hands. It doesn’t have to be either or.

INT: Are there any developments within emoji which you predict will change or enhance during 2020 in particular?

JD: I hope 2020 is a year we focus more on a broader, more holistic strategy of what to encode and less intaking one-off emoji proposals. Since 2011, Unicode has gone from nearly 500 to over 3,000 emoji. I wonder if the catch-all power of emoji is diminishing because there are too many emoji and yet, there can never be enough. Are we creating zones of exclusion without consciously trying? The inclusion of one emoji is the exclusion of another. It’s remarkable emoji have come this far. I’d like to see us holding ourselves to a higher standard now we’re here.

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