Gender Legibility in Emoji

An Interview with Type Designer and Emoji Evangelist Paul Hunt

Emoji are a kind of typeface. But there are new problems of identity and gender in designing emoji. This week, TypeThursday sat down with Paul Hunt of Adobe Type. We discussed how to design the complicated aspects of identity and gender in emoji.


TypeThursday: Paul, thanks for being here for TypeThursday.

Paul Hunt: Yay! Hooray for type! 😄🙌

TT: Yes, we all love type. I asked you to come in here for TypeThursday because I know one thing you absolutely love is emojis. I’ve seen it from reviewing everything you do on Twitter. Before I get into anything else about that, how did you get into type design in the first place?

Paul’s Introduction to Typeface Design

PH: Well, I was kicked out of college and then I got a full-time job working for a newspaper in my hometown. Actually, in Winslow, Arizona, which is near where I grew up. They hired me because I knew how to operate a Mac. I got into doing advertising design and I quickly fell in love with typography, which was something that had interested me since I was very young.

Then I found Typophile; at that time in the early 2000s it was still a vibrant community. I got in touch with those people and quickly learned as much as I could about typography and typeface design and started trying to teach myself a little bit about both crafts. That included teaching myself how to do OpenType programming, which then led to an internship with P22 Type Foundry. It was only meant to last for three months, but it turned into a gig for the next three years. When I felt like I had learned everything that I could there, I decided to go on and get my Master’s degree at the University of Reading in their typeface design program.

Once I finished, I was lucky enough to be hired by Adobe as part of their new graduate hire program. I joined the type team — I was chosen largely due to my previous experience with P22 and also my strong interest in non-Latin typeface design which were things that Adobe was interested in at the time. I’ve been at Adobe seven years now and it’s been an interesting seven years.

TT: Something that you said at the get-go — when you say you got kicked out of college, what did that mean?

Paul’s Relationship with Identity

PH: Well, I am gay and I was attending Brigham Young University which is a Mormon, private college, and their rules of enrollment are that you cannot be a gay and engage in sexual acts while you are attending their school. I did have sexual relations during that time. 😂 And I got kicked out of school. Yeah… So that was not my proudest moment, but that is an experience that has shaped my life and worldview and I think it actually plays into my views on gender and emoji and why I even threw that in there when I was giving you my personal history.

TT: Your very strong interest in the topic of gender comes from that personal history. It was a really powerful moment in your life to be rejected over your sexual identity, right?

PH: Yeah. I think, growing up, queer and Mormon, I had these two conflicting aspects of my own identity that I had to eventually come to terms with, and I am still coming to terms with in certain ways. Because of who I am, I had to question my own identity and what that meant. Ever since that time, I’ve had a strong interest in what identity is and what it means, where it comes from, and how we create our own identities.

Gender definitely is one of the things that plays into this. Gender is the most basic aspect of an individual’s identity. It’s a very strong concept that sometimes we don’t give enough respect in thinking about it — especially those of us who are white, privileged males. We tend to think of ourselves as the normal, average, everyday person because life is geared to work towards our interests and then we just assume that life is meant to be that way and that’s supposed to be the case, but that’s not necessarily true.

TT: For you, your life experiences have given you moments to show the idea of “normal-ness” was not true for you.

PH: While I’m white and male and have those privileges, the fact that I was gay was one strike against me. And having that one strike, I think, makes you look at the strikes other people have against them. Unfortunately, we don’t treat women with the equality that they deserve, we don’t treat indigenous peoples and cultures with appropriate reverence, and I see my advocating for greater gender equality in Unicode as being part of my own personal fight towards giving people better tools to communicate their own identities. That’s what it all boils down to for me.

Androgynous Gender Representation

TT: You advocated a proposal for androgynous gender representation in the emoji design of persons. Can you explain a little bit more about that?

PH: Sure. The dominant model of gender that has been put forth into our world culture today is based on binary gender. This means that we are trained to see people as either male and masculine on the one hand 👨, or female and feminine 👩 on the other hand. We typically don’t think of people who either don’t want to identify with one or the other 🤔 or someone who wants to identify somewhere in-between or somebody who just does not want to choose gender as being a significant part of their own personal identity 👤.

I made a couple proposals on gender representation to the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee. I made one advocating for default gender for all emoji to be agender as far as possible. That would mean an abstract human representation, like the iconic smileys that you have in emoji. My proposal is that all emoji should be treated this way by default so that there is no gender assignment in any way to begin with. My secondary proposal, and the one that I’m getting the most traction on right now, is to add three ambiguously-gendered or androgynous emoji to the standard to correspond to the binary pairs that already exist. For example, you would have a man, a woman, and an androgyne; a boy and a girl and a child of undetermined gender, &c.

TT: The reason why this is important is because when a specific emoji is gendered, that gives a certain bias or pre-assumption about how people relate to these tools they use to communicate with each other. In your perspective, you feel like that’s an issue of bias or privilege in communications and design.

Bias and Privilege in Emoji Design

PH: Exactly. Currently, emoji sets from the major vendors do contain gender bias that reflects a predominantly male, binary view on gender. What kick-started my work was that women began advocating for better representation of their gender in Unicode — they wanted there to be more women shown in occupations. There’s no reason that the police emoji should necessarily be a man. You should be able to have a policeman and a policewoman. And then my proposal takes it even further and suggests that, not only should you have a policeman and a policewoman, but you should have a police officer, that was obviously a human form, but there should be some question as to what the gender of that person is and lastly a simple smiley with a police hat.

TT: Which reminds me of the survey you ran to figure out how gendered some of these different emoji symbols are. I’ve been labeling it “gender legibility”. What are your thoughts about that?

Gender Legibility

PH: That was an outgrowth of my gender research. I did a first pass of my proposal for ambiguously-gendered emoji while I was at the most recent Unicode Technical Committee meetings that were held at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington. I was quickly trying to put something together and I got some feedback from members of the committee that most people saw my work on the androgynous emoji as looking masculine to them by default.

I was curious and wanted to get some more data points. I created a survey online to try to gauge what a wider audience thought. I presented it in a way that people could rate each emoji image on its own, without any other context, and give a rating where 1 would be male or masculine, 7 would be female or feminine and the middle would be either agender or androgynous. So that would be level 4. And then I just asked people to respond to this questionnaire and to rate various emoji. The findings were interesting and I hope to be able to publish those in an article in the near future. But if you have any specific questions now about the results or about my thoughts or my takeaways, I’m happy to answer those.

TT: Yes — I’d love to hear, what would be the main takeaway from these results from that survey?

Results from the Gender Legibility Survey

PH: Well, there were several interesting realizations for me. It did confirm that there is a slight gender bias to viewing all emoji as being masculine by default. So even the abstract smileys were rated slightly on the masculine side of the scale. One that stood out as rating strongly masculine was the smiley with a cowboy hat. So just the addition of headgear made that particular emoji be perceived as being more similar to what we expect from males. Another one that stood out as a surprise was the smiley with heart-shaped eyes. The perception of that one was definitely seen as falling towards the more feminine side of the scale. So it’s interesting to see that even with these abstract emoji, they still carry connotations of masculinity and femininity that are just embedded in us as part of our culture.

I found enough support to show that it is possible to design an androgynous representation of human face in emoji form even though my sample emoji were very large-scale. So they weren’t at your typical emoji text size — what people saw was actually a large face. That may have skewed my research a bit.

A bigger problem that I stumbled on was that the emoji men that I drew were rated as fairly androgynous. I believe that the reason why, and I have a couple of bits of information that point to this, is that my default male representations had no facial hair — so there’s no moustache, no beard. And my emoji boy looked like a smaller version the man. So he has no mustache or beard, obviously, but he has no head hair either. So these ones were rated very androgynous. However, as soon as I put a beard on my emoji man, he was rated very masculine and people automatically recognized that as being a male. That was probably the strongest, masculine-rated emoji image that I showed to people. So there’s this weird thing where we present androgynously-featured emoji people and expect them to represent men. We communicate the depiction of a man as representing your every-person.

Where in reality — you and I are both men and we are both bearded. I think beards are very much en vogue now and having a beard or a moustache is always going to be a very strong symbol of manliness, of maleness, of masculinity. Unfortunately, we have neutered our men emoji too much. You can see in Apple’s latest update that they’ve designed the majority of their men with no facial hair. But if you go back to the original Apple imagery, the very first guy had a moustache: it’s a huge signifier.

And in a way, it’s not fair that we’ve gone so far in the direction of emasculating our emoji men, because in depicting women in emoji, we make them hyper-feminine. We ensure that they are drawn with long hair, and that the eyes are feminized. We make sure their lips that look like they have lipstick on them, we draw bows and barrettes in emoji girls’ hair. So we do all these things for our women and girl emoji that we don’t expect in our emoji men and boys. This just reinforces our gender bias to say that the man represents an every-person, and we need to get away from that. I believe that there should be at least three gendered emoji options — there should be an option for people to choose something that is very stereotypically masculine, there should be an option for people to choose something that is very stereotypically feminine, and there should be an option for people to choose something that is androgynous. But by default all person emoji should be shown as abstract and agender.

The Boundaries of Legibility

TT: We hear a lot about type design, as the most conservative of arts. A typeface design has to work within the parameters of what is legible both formally and historically. There’s only so much a letter “H” can deviate from what is mutually understood only so much before it’s no longer an “H.”

PH: Yes, and in fact there are some parallels that I’ve made in my own mind to typeface design and that ties in with more esoteric concepts like Daoist philosophy. If you think of the yin-yang symbol… are you familiar with that one?

TT: I am.

PH: Well, the yin-yang symbol ☯ is a division of light and dark or masculine and feminine, but together those two parts make a whole. This dualistic monism that is present in Eastern philosophy. But it’s present even in typeface design. If you think about the type design process, what you’re really doing is creating black-and-white images of letters that are subtractive from each other. You have the counter-space and you have the strokes which define each other. These details matter on a micro level, but on the macro level, what you’re looking at in text we call the ‘grey value’. When you’re viewing a block of text, you want to have a particular grey tone that’s pleasing to the reader’s eye.

We can think of these things — the ancient Chinese who developed the concept of Yin and Yang likened the white portion of the symbol, the Yang part, to being the masculine and the dark part as being the feminine, but then together, you have something that is whole. That’s also how I view each individual. We all have masculine traits; we all have feminine traits. We all combine those together in different proportions and when we can balance these things within ourselves, we are no longer man or woman, we are just a person. So in my personal practice, I’ve tried to apply this understanding from philosophy to typeface design, to emoji, to gender, &c. I’ve tried to see how all of these things relate; and for me, they do. And now I’m trying to share my understanding with a wider audience to see if it’s something that holds true for them as well.

TT: I hope this conversation is a good starting point for helping some people out with that way of thinking.

PH: I hope so too and that’s why I agreed on doing this interview because I thought that it would be a good opportunity to have more exposure to these ideas and to talk about them in a way that will hopefully be more relatable to people.

TT: I agree. Paul, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much.

PH: Thank you. I appreciate your time and your interest.


Interested in Gender and Emoji? Paul is giving a lecture and workshop at EmojiCon on November 6th.

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