Taking the Equality Conversation to Emoji

Rachel Been, Designer @ Google & Agustin Fonts, Product Manager @ Google

People often ask us how emoji are created and how they get into our phones. As a designer and a product manager working on Android, one of the things we strive for, is to give users the best text experiences, which of course includes emoji. Given our direct involvement in emoji at Google, we thought we’d share this process and tell you more about why we chose to focus on women in professions as a concrete example.

With the launch of Pixel, the first phone running Android 7.1, we are adding 63 new emoji with a focus on gender empowerment and fair gender representation. We are very proud of these new emoji, in part because we had a hand in making them a reality, and also because they sparked meaningful discussion and spurred a new way of thinking about the representation of humans in emoji form.

Why focus on gender?

Emojis are part of a global language. The lack of fair gender representation sends an implicit message about the roles women play in the world. We wanted to fix this disparity. We weren’t the only ones noticing this problem and asking for a change. Over the last few months, The New York Times, CNN, and Procter & Gamble have referenced the narrow range of emoji women as dancers, brides and princesses.

By showcasing women as rockstars, scientists, and welders, we saw an opportunity to encourage self-definition and aspiration, as well as shift the archetype for professional representation.

In addition to new professions, we also added dual gender counterparts for emoji that previously only had a male or female representation. Now there are female police officers, men getting haircuts, and single-parent families. And in the name of equal representation, there are now dancing men with bunny ears, in all their spandex leotard glory. Because equality is only true when it is thorough.

This isn’t only about women using female emojis, it’s about encouraging all genders to challenge cultural stereotypes around definitions of ‘defaults.’

How did these emoji become a reality?

Proposal

An excerpt of the proposal presented to Unicode.

In May 2016 we presented a proposal to the Unicode Consortium to include new professional emoji. Contrary to popular belief, the Unicode Consortium (Unicode for short) is by no means an obscure secret-society. It’s a group of representatives from various tech companies who get together in a conference room to define how digital text should interoperate across platforms. The reason you can type an email on your computer, read it on your phone, and forward it to someone in Japan, is because Unicode defines specifications for text rendering that software vendors then adopt.

Because Google is a member company of Unicode, we had a chance to attend the meeting in person and present a proposal for female professions. The presentation happened in a typical corporate conference room, where the Unicode members were gathered for the quarterly meeting. Proposals are usually presented for 5–10 minutes with as much time for discussion. The discussion process is surprisingly orderly, with members raising their hands to speak and a committee member tracking who has requested to talk.

The Unicode Consortium was quick to agree that our proposal had clear value for users and made necessary improvements over the existing set of emoji. They decided to convene a working group of emoji implementers (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter etc.) to hash out the details of how to design and implement the emoji.

Although we attended in person, anyone can submit proposals to Unicode and they are reviewed periodically.

Deliberation

Deliberation.

Following the proposal, the emoji implementers met weekly for a month to agree on the final set of professions, as well as on overall design principles that would help these emoji be understood across platforms. As emoji users are painfully aware, sending emoji between operating systems can get really confusing (Is that a grin or a grimace?). We openly shared our designs to ensure that the office worker emoji wasn’t confused with the judge.

In addition to design consistency, it was also important to be fast. We did not want to wait until the next Unicode release in Summer 2017 to launch these emoji. As a result, we opted to avoid creating new characters (or codepoints as Unicode calls them), but instead joined existing characters by using a method called Zero Width Joiners (ZWJs). ZWJs “glue” existing emoji together to make a new one. ZWJs also have the advantage of having some backwards compatibility. If the receiving user does not have the new emoji, the combination “breaks down” into the component parts. For example, the female pilot would break down into a woman and a plane, so that the meaning is still understandable on older devices.

Example of a ZWJ sequence.

Major tech companies don’t often get together to quickly solve a targeted challenge — which made the process a very unique experience. Rather than having our design teams work in isolation, we decided it was worth investing in open collaboration, even if it meant meeting weekly during a 7:45am video conference.

We jointly agreed on the list of professions and the ZWJ sequences. After formalizing the list, we decided on a consistent design system that would translate across the diversity of styles in the emoji ecosystem.

Design Process

Professional elements and props.

As designers, we had to consider a few things to make the final decision on what these emoji should look like: Are they culturally appropriate? Can people understand what they represent? Are they correctly representing the professions?

We originally put our farmer in overalls, our doctor in green scrubs, and gave our business woman a tie. Because we didn’t design in a vacuum but collaborated with a global team, we learned that overalls conjured a very American version of farming (think American Gothic), green was not a color that translated universally when representing a medical professional, and that a woman in a tie seemed unrealistic. What did translate globally was our love for David Bowie as the epitome of a rock star.

Original Medical Professional and Farmer.

After closing on attire, we came up with four main principles for constructing each emoji:

Less is more. Emoji are often viewed at a small scale, so adding fine details complicated a quick read. We set up a system to minimize the props — for example the chef doesn’t have an oven, and a knife, and a pan, and a fully baked meal — only a frying pan with an egg.

In the end, we limited the items representing the professions to three features:

  1. Hat or background element.
  2. Clothing — including face props!
  3. Item and hand posture.
We built a limited system of representation.

In addition to legibility, the idea of metaphor was important — the more specific the elements, the less the emoji could be reinterpreted. The welder is a perfect example — we considered adding a factory in the background, but the emoji would have represented a specific profession and workplace and less the notion of making or creating…or talking about the movie Flashdance. So we left the factory out.

Head and shoulders. Before settling on shoulders, we looked at full bodies and heads to represent the professions. Heads limited us to hats and face-props. How would a judge be represented, or a teacher? Full-bodies made it hard to decipher what exactly was happening. As a happy, readable solution we gave our emojis shoulders so we could showcase clothing, props, hats and facepaint.

We looked at full body representations of the professions before deciding on head and shoulders.

Scale. We also maintained scale and placement consistencies to unify the set. All prop-holding emoji held the items in their left hand and out to the side so the prop didn’t overlap the body and become hard to read. All of the props (the egg pan, the paintbrush, the wrench) are similarly sized and placed in the right side of the frame. We tried to repeat elements to maintain consistency. For example, the monitor with code is the same shape as the teacher’s chalkboard.

No more pink. And since the goal was to overcome poor representations of women in the workplace, we avoided gender stereotypes by eliminating signifiers of gender that could be perceived as too culturally specific. For women, this meant things like makeup, heavily gendered clothing, and the color pink.

What about true gender equality?

People like to see themselves represented in emoji. That’s why people emoji look human, have skin tones, and are gendered. However, the current emoji set only includes options that represent men and women.

We recognize that gender identity is not fully defined by this binary and that we can do better to represent a more inclusive gender spectrum. The Unicode committee is in active conversations about how to accomplish this goal. The major challenge in bringing gender equality to emoji is not in agreeing that it’s something we have to do (because we’re there already), but rather how to represent it well at emoji scale.

We’ll keep trying until we get it right.

What about the future?

As Googlers and individuals we are committed to innovate and make a positive change in the world, so we don’t take this opportunity to shape a universal language lightly. These aren’t just cute images, they are part of how we communicate with each other, and as such they carry powerful implicit messages about the role gender plays in our culture. Our plan is to keep making things that better represent everyone in a fair, respectful, and when appropriate, fun way.

We can only hope that Ruth Bader Ginsburg now signs all her court briefs with a judge emoji.

______________________________________

Making emoji happen on a mobile platform is not simple. You have to illustrate, you have to build and optimize a font, and you have to get it into a phone. Here are some of the people that deserve a lot of the credit for helping us make these emoji a reality:

Mark Davis, Nicole Bleuel, Annie Chang, Kai Peng, Chang Yang, Doug Felt, Raph Levien, Roozbeh Pournader.