A brief history of communication: hieroglyphics to emojis
A brief history of communication: hieroglyphics to emojis

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A brief history of communication: hieroglyphics to emojis

7 Designing emojis

Given that meaning is conveyed through the way the different symbols look, the design of emojis is obviously a very important element in how they work as a communicative system. In the next activity you’ll hear from Gedeon Maheux, co-founder of the graphic design company The Iconfactory. Gedeon has been involved in the design of emojis for companies such as Twitter and Facebook, and talks here about what goes into their creation.

Activity 4 Gedeon Maheux

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes

Listen to the interview below in which Gedeon Maheux discusses some of the issues around designing emojis and the impact they are having on society. In the interview, he mentions the Unicode Consortium, a regulatory group who decide on what becomes an emoji and what doesn’t. The Consortium also gives a rough template of what all the emojis should look like.

Described image
Figure 11 Gedeon Maheux

As you listen to the interview, answer the following questions:

  • In Gedeon’s view, why do people use emojis?
  • What leeway does his company have in designing emojis?
  • What evidence does he give of the ways in which people use communicative resources for their own ends?
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1 Gedeon Maheux
Skip transcript: Audio 1 Gedeon Maheux

Transcript: Audio 1 Gedeon Maheux

Hello. I’m Philip Sargent. And I’m joined today on the phone by Gedeon Maheux, co-founder of the Iconfactory, a graphic design company based in the United States and in Sweden, which specialises in software for creating and using icons, including a wide range of emoji. The Iconfactory was founded in 1996 and is now one of the leading studios in commercial icon design and includes Windows, Twitter, and Facebook among their clients. Gedeon, thank you for joining us today.
Thanks for having me.
What do you see as the key purpose of emoji as a form of communication?
They’re a way for people to communicate quickly about some things or emotions or concepts that we are all familiar with in one way or another. And they are funner than typing out words. So when you have the opportunity to use an emoji instead of a long drawn-out sentence or something like that, if you can communicate it quickly with a simple pictogram, then a lot of people prefer to do that.
And there’s a lot of appeal there for that. And as technology advances and people’s attention spans become shorter and shorter, I think they have adopted this kind of language to a greater degree. People have become more enthusiastic about emoji.
Do you think you could talk us through how you go about designing them?
It basically starts with the client who’s requesting the emoji, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or someone else, and what their visual goals are for the emoji suite-- what they want to accomplish with that. We use that as a starting point. How do they want their emoji to be differentiated visually from what other platforms have done?
And we take that, and we use that as a jumping-off point to design several style looks and feels. For the emoji suite itself, we take some representation from the suite, whether it’s people, vehicles, or food, and we work them up in a number of different styles. And then we go back and forth with the client to refine those styles until they are approved.
How much leeway do you have in terms of doing something which has to look like a particular thing and doing something which is unique or within a house style?
Every emoji has a Unicode standard. And so that emoji has to communicate that thing in a particular way. If we go outside of that guideline, then people won’t recognise it. Or when they transmit an emoji to a friend, they’ll see something different than what they’re expecting.
And so you can’t stray too far from the visual concept of the emoji itself. What you can do, obviously, is vary how that particular thing is depicted. The angle, the lighting, the colouring-- all of those things are up for grabs.
What impact do you think they’ve had both on the way people communicate but also on society in general? Do you have a feel for that?
Oh, they’ve had quite a bit of impact. I can’t go anywhere in these days without seeing something emoji related, whether it’s in pop culture or in merchandise. Another is how those particular things affect, like, what we do when we communicate with each other, and how much further can we push it.
I mean, and what will they be replaced with? Will they be replaced with animated versions of themselves? Or stickers are probably pretty popular now, too. But they haven’t seemed to catch on as widespread as emoji. And I think that’s because they’re not as ubiquitous.
That leads very nicely into the question of what you think the future of emoji might be, if you have any ideas of whether it’s going to just expand so much that it’ll become impossible to use or, as you say, whether something else will take over.
That’s a really tough question. Obviously, I think in the short term, the emoji language will continue to expand. Obviously, the Unicode consortium will add new entries into the emoji lexicon. And they will continue to do that for the foreseeable future. So we’ll always have new emojis coming down the pipe that people can use.
What will happen after that, I’m not sure. We saw a little bit of it this year with Apple’s Animojis in the iPhone X, with animated three-dimensional versions of some of the emojis. Is that practical for all emojis? No, not in any way, shape, or form.
Is it even desirable? And I’m not sure that it is. But for some emojis, such as the smiley faces and animals, it makes perfect sense. And people seem to love it. So that’s one possible feature.
One thing I really hope that they do is make it easier to find emojis in the keyboards and type them quicker. As the lexicon expands, it’s getting harder and harder to locate and type the emoji that you’ve been looking for. I really hope that that improves somehow.
Do you think anything has changed in your thinking about the approach to the design?
One of the things that’s changed since we started creating them until now is the need to be diverse in emoji design-- I mean, to think about how people of different cultures and races will use an emoji. So when approaching the design of an emoji, we always try to consider, is there a way that this is inclusive in its design? It’s definitely something that we are mindful now that I’d say was less so when we first started designing emoji.
And I think that’s a good thing. In the end, it makes the emoji usable by a wider set of audience. And that’s always a plus.
I wanted to ask you about how they actually convey meaning and whether there are any examples you’ve come across where you’ve thought it was intended to mean something, and then people pick it up and use it for a different purpose, either because they think it looks like that or for whatever other reason.
Yeah, there are so many examples of that it’s hard to pick just a few. And it’s interesting and fascinating. If I studied language for a living, I would definitely be studying this because it’s fascinating how people can appropriate something for their own use and then run with it. One example of that is the peach emoji.
I mean, obviously, it’s there to represent the fruit. But many people use it to represent someone’s bottom. And, in fact, when Apple recently changed the peach so that it looked less like a bottom, people were upset. And they wanted it returned to the previous design so that they could continue using it to represent the bottom, you know? And that’s one.
Another would be the high fives. There’s two hands that come up to give a high five. And people use that to represent praying. Actually, that’s not the original intent of the emoji. But because it can represent that visually, people do use it for that.
There’s a whole group of emojis that are like that. And it is fascinating to watch people use or adopt the particular emojis to mean something other than what it was originally intended to be. But I think that’s always the case with language.
Gedeon, thank you so much for joining us today and for giving us your insights. It’s been a great pleasure to talk to you.
Oh, thanks so much for having me.
End transcript: Audio 1 Gedeon Maheux
Audio 1 Gedeon Maheux
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Described image
Figure 12 What do these emojis mean?

Gedeon mentions the speed with which emojis can be used to communicate ideas. And why this makes them such a convenient form of communication. He also mentions that they are particularly effective at conveying emotion, as we discussed above and that this is certain to be a factor in their popularity. In drawing up the designs, his company has to adhere to the Unicode Standard so that everyone can recognise what each emoji is supposed to represent. This reflects a truth about language in general. A symbol - whether it’s a visual image or a word – needs to be mutually understood, otherwise communication breaks down. Gedeon’s company does, however, have a certain leeway in terms of the angle, lighting and colouring of the emojis. But despite the efforts he and his team make in creating clear, engaging pictures, there’s still the chance that people will use them in ways that weren’t intended or anticipated. He gives the examples of the way in which people use the peach emoji and the high-fives emoji to mean bottom and praying respectively. This again reveals an important truth about language in general – people will always use and adapt its resources for their own ends.


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