An Emoji lesson on Inclusivity

Public interest in diversity and representation appears to have increased in recent years. We are now seeing conversations and more importantly vocal criticisms on the topic of representation in media. If we are changing the way we analyse and critique brands, films and fashion, we should be looking at all imagery with the same lens. When people think of the role of imagery, they might think of large-scale external facing advertising campaigns, but really, any visual image addresses ‘questions of cultural meaning and power.’ [1]

In 2018, the Unicode Consortium, a Silicon Valley based non-profit that standardises the way text is encoded on the internet, released a set of new emoji’s including, among other items, a lobster. Within hours of the emoji’s release, the internet was quick to respond, calling it out as anatomically incorrect due to a missing pair of legs. When professional skateboarder Tony Hawk saw sample images of the 2018 skateboard emoji update, he publicly shared how unimpressed he was, and the Unicode Consortium asked him to be an ‘emoji advisor’ to help perfect the symbol.[2]

Given that it took only hours to recognise the inaccuracies in last year’s emoji release, it is concerning to note that it took until 2015 (9 years after Unicode Consortium’s formation) for emojis to be created representing a range of skin tones and 10 years for the team to create emojis representing women in professional environments. Until 2016, professions previously categorised as non-gender specific such as ‘police officer’ had been represented by an emoji with specifically male characteristics, despite the non-gendered description. In 2016 an emoji list was proposed to represent women in industries including but not limited to: business, healthcare, science, education, technology and farming.[3]

In 2015, moves were made to be more inclusive when Unicode introduced skin tone modifiers to its emojis. In a similar manner to their incorrect equation of male as ‘non-gendered,’ Unicode had chosen yellow/orange as a standardised skin colour to represent a generic neutral. In doing so, they not only isolated their darker skinned users but reinforced the idea that ‘lighter’ is the cultural norm. Since rectifying this error in judgement, modifiers have been created based on the Fitzpatrick scale, a recognised standard for dermatology.[4]

The difference in response time between Unicode correcting its 10-legged lobster compared to amending its male-centric, single-skin-toned characters conveys an obliviousness (and maybe even ignorance) to the inaccuracies of their portrayal of women and POC or people of colour.

The nature of the emoji is to represent a default, simplified perception of a person or object. Emojis’ very existence offers an interesting lens to assess how the world is mass perceived.

In David Wade Chambers’ ‘Draw a Scientist Test,’ surveys conducted between 1966 and 1977 show less than 1% of drawings collected from children were of female scientists. This number has risen to 28% during recent decades. It is important to consider that the majority of these female scientist drawings were drawn by girls; this suggests that young girls are more likely today to see their future selves as scientists and that young girls are breaking the societal assumption of ‘scientist’ as a male-only profession. Unfortunately, this also points to a strong bias among young boys that scientists are solely male. [5]

In a world where, until 2016, female scientists would have struggled to communicate their own profession as their own gender when talking online, we might question whether the imagery we use to communicate is a result of societal standards or a creator of them.

So how can we be more inclusive — and less prescriptive — when generating imagery?

1. Don’t try to tick-box your way to success. You can’t.

Imagery is complex. It would be easy to conclude that due to the complexity of using figures in imagery, we might as well all use generic, abstract images of mountain tops or city skylines. However, this can still be inaccessible due to the subtleties and semiotic values that make imagery so brilliant and difficult. A visual cue to judge something as ‘feminine’ could be as simple as the use of a particular colour or pattern. In the example of male-only professional emojis, the team at Unicode thought they’d found an ideal, generic representation. In reality, they did not realise their biases.

The issue extends beyond the depiction of an individual. What about group dynamics? What about body language? Who is looking at who, who is directing the meeting, and who is sitting wide-eyed listening? Often I see imagery which at first glance might be considered diverse and representational, and yet the male figure stands leading the brief, and the female employees — of various backgrounds and physicalities — sit and listen. If imagery dictates social norms, is this truly what we want to showcase? Admittedly, one of these images alone is not problematic; but if all your imagery conveys gender roles like the scene I just describe, then what are you saying is your organisations’ ‘norm’?

A 2017 study analysing 1,468 images across elementary and middle school health textbooks to examine the portrayal of race, gender, and sexuality in the US found that although individual groups were equally depicted, the positioning of the imagery did not necessarily represent equality: “…women and POC were frequently portrayed in stereotypical roles.” [6] For instance, girls were depicted “daydreaming about heterosexual marriage.” “…Across the textbooks, in sections that dealt with conflict, violence, danger, and drug and alcohol abuse, we found an overrepresentation of Latinos/as compared to other racial groups.” As this research highlights, pacifying a desire for diversity in numbers is not enough.

Rather than trying to ‘avoid the problem’ or tick-box your way to success, start caring more about how accessible your material is, and less about finding some foolproof, quick-win answer. There isn’t one.

2. Don’t wait to be told. Your passivity does not help.

Inclusivity is about making sure everyone is represented. There shouldn’t have to be a brief to justify or remind you to include diverse imagery in your designs. When brands like Fenty proved that catering to the void in the market for dark-skinned cosmetics could be a huge business success[8], it turned the spotlight back onto the mainstream industry, as if to say that there are no excuses now for neglecting diverse consumers. But using inclusive imagery — particularly outside the context of the consumer market — should not need financial justification. Don’t wait to be told ‘why’ an image would work better if it showed more diversity. Simply include it. If there’s no reason not to showcase a diverse group of people, of different ages, ethnicities and physicalities, then why should the default be to do anything different?

There are many excellent reasons to use diverse imagery, including: improving employee satisfaction; supporting recruitment targets; maintaining a contemporary, leading brand image; and avoiding miscommunication. For example, in a 2018 study of medical textbooks[7], it was found that: “There are numerous chapters where Black people, POC and images of dark skin tones are completely absent. The absence of dark skin tones is particularly important in instances such as skin cancer and other diseases where physicians are required to recognize varied presentations of diseases in patients with different skin tones.”

But this logic should not be the only reasoning behind using diverse imagery. The demand for justification of inclusive imagery, only highlights that it is not the norm. Currently, for many, considering using inclusive imagery is an active thought process. The recognition that people need to actively step outside their habitual behaviour of supplying the same imagery in order to intently diverge from the past model showcases part of the problem. At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be waiting for a client, manager or peer to advocate for inclusive imagery with some spiel about their brand or representation…You should be using inclusive imagery by default.

It should be considered the norm simply because, if you are looking for imagery to connect with people, to reflect people, then you should be showcasing people, in all forms.

3. Don’t fake it til you make it. It’s obvious when you’re insincere.

People often feel that imagery is too easy an answer. A token gesture that connotes: ‘We’ve included a glossy diverse stock image, and now need do nothing more’. However, an image is not a substitute for action. Showcasing diverse imagery does not mean that organisations have no responsibility to be proactive in practice. Yes, imagery can be aspirational. Personally, I would rather be represented in imagery pre-hire, than have a reactional re-brand by my employer upon realising that I exist.

Imagery can be a starting point for conversation. Perhaps you use an image of a person in a wheelchair and suddenly realise there is no accessibility to your building. Perhaps you showcase a same-sex couple externally and inadvertently make an exisiting employee feel more valued in their place of work. Sometimes the conversations that arise in advance of using diverse imagery can be just as important as conversations held in reaction to the use of the imagery. If you feel uncomfortable using diverse imagery because it doesn’t feel truthful to the reality of your organisation, then that’s a starting point. There’s nothing like a visual goal to incentivise change. Rather than avoiding the stock imagery or, worse, forcing your few diverse employees into every piece of design material to the point that they become uncomfortable, tackle the root of the problem.

Only last month, Oh Polly, a fast fashion site popular on Instagram, created a separate Instagram account called Oh Polly Inclusive for their plus size and minority models.[9] The irony of creating a separate channel in order to be fully inclusive was apparently lost on them. The current commodification of being ‘inclusive’ is putting the topic at risk of being nothing more than a hashtag. To truly be inclusive as a business you must be genuine and back up your thinking with the right kind of action. Don’t act or don’t act sincerely and you will be called out.

Though most of us want to be inclusive, often we don’t know our own biases. It is important to be aware that every design piece we produce holds a responsibility to accurately represent and inform. Take Siri, Cortana or Alexa; it is no coincidence that most virtual assistants reflect a woman, mimicking the archetypal assistive and submissive female.

Similarly, my Google search results for an ‘icon of a person’ are below.

Despite the graphic designers attempt to strip the icon of a gender leaning, all but one icon reinforce a dominant male symbolism.

Inclusive imagery is a trigger for important conversations, not a cover to hide behind. It is the responsibility of any individual working with imagery in any form to question their design choices and think ‘why did I choose this?’.

When we design, we subconsciously mimic the societal and cultural norms impressed on us since childhood. For these reasons we must question our automated assumptions and design choices, and in doing so, push for open mindedness.

[1] Visual Methodologies: Gillian Rose.





[6] Numbers are Just Not Enough: A Critical Analysis of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Elementary and Middle School Health Textbooks Educational Studies: Sherry L. Deckman, Ellie Fitts Fulmer, Keely Kirby, Katharine Hoover & Abena Subira Mackall (2018)

[7] Representations of race and skin tone in medical textbook imagery,: Patricia Louie. RimaWilkes



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