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How an emoji goes from pitch to product

Artwork by Paul D. Hunt, Adobe

At a glance, emoji are simple. Each icon visually represents something instantly recognizable — food, a happy face, a high-five. The creation of an emoji is hardly so straightforward. Each icon requires a carefully researched proposal, review by a subcommittee, refinement, approval, and, most importantly, someone willing to champion the emoji through the process.

Paul Hunt is a type designer at Adobe who helped bring the orange heart and more gender-inclusive emoji to Unicode 10, the upcoming version of Unicode Standard. The orange addition is key for completing the rainbow spectrum associated with the six-color pride flag, a symbol of the LGBT community, while Hunt’s proposal for “child,” “adult,” and “older adult” expanded options for users who want to express themselves beyond stereotypical masculine or feminine traits. These three emoji are more androgynous, and less dependent on the gendered visuals — crutches like gender-coded colors (pink, blue) and outfits (dresses, lipstick) — applied to previous male and female characters.

“I find something that I am passionate about,” Hunt says on the topic of creating emoji. We spoke with the designer to learn more about the emoji creation process — which he says can take as long as a year for a single icon — and introducing more diversity into Unicode.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What kind of research do you put into a proposal? What do you feel are the most important things to prove in that document?

With the two proposals I put together, they were very different in terms of research. For the orange heart, it was just kind of a simple case of stating an argument that we have the other colors that are typically included in the rainbow spectrum, so we should have an orange heart too to complete that set of colored hearts. That was pretty quick and easy to put together.

For the gender-inclusive emoji proposal, it was a lot more work because I had to do a lot of research about gender in order to make sure the proposal I was putting together was the right way of going about a very sensitive, potentially sensitive issue. I did a lot of reading about gender and androgyny. A lot of this didn't make it into the language of the final proposal, but I did do a lot of research to try and make sure that I approached it in a way that was respectful and hopefully that was also kind of complete.

Artwork by Paul D. Hunt, Adobe

I’m curious about the teams that work on emoji — how diverse is that team itself?

It's not super diverse. There are — I don't know how many people attend the meetings regularly because they're usually phone meetings, but it is kind of typically white, male, over 40, you know.

Emoji are obviously becoming more diverse. How do you breach that gap to ensure that the group is being represented when the team itself is not as diverse as it could be?

Well, in terms of gender, it was a lot of work being done around providing better depictions of women and girls in emoji. That prompted some reactions from the public that addressing gender as something that's binary — that means just having depictions of men or women in emoji — was not a complete way of handling gender. My approach was then to suggest that there should also be gender-inclusive versions of emoji as well. So, basically, it's meant just to look like a human person, so there would be three characters. There would be a “child,” an “adult,” and an “older adult” to correspond with, despite the boy / girl, man / woman, older man / older woman pairs.

I know it's tricky to try to show a depiction of a person without including concepts of masculinity or femininity, but I think that as long as the designer tries to be sensitive in only using kind of visual cues that are common to both genders, then it can be left to the interpretation of whoever is sending or receiving the emoji as to do they think it's adequate to depict just a person, or does it look more masculine or feminine to them. But I think as long as it kind of calls those things into question, then I think what I've tried to propose with the inclusive gender emoji will be successful.

Emoji are such a small canvas to work with and you have to represent so much within that tiny icon. What makes a good emoji, in your opinion?

It's a bit of a taste issue. Obviously emoji is a design thing and we all have our preferences. In the work that I do for the Unicode body, in making a font for their code charts that's meant to be black and white only, I have a lot of restrictions put on me just because I can't use color. What I try to do is make anything I design be as iconic as possible. I try to think of emoji, when I'm drawing them, as being more like icons.

Artwork by Paul D. Hunt, Adobe

I like the more abstract style, maybe more similar to the direction that Google is going right now. Or similar to some of the original Japanese imagery. I liked a lot of the original Apple emoji, but I think we've all seen that they're starting to become hyper realistic in the [10.2 update]. I'm sure that some people will appreciate that, but I think it starts to kind of be less fun and less interesting when things start looking like actual objects instead of something that tries to make you think of an object.

Are emoji ever retired?

Not really. Once characters are in the Unicode standards, they're kind of there forever. The emoji subcommittee tries to be intentionally conservative so that we hopefully are only adding things that will actually be of interest and be used to the Unicode standard. The only case that I can think of is, at one point, we did add a rifle and a character for the sport of the pentathlon. Those were both added to the Unicode standard, but then late in the process, it was decided that those would not be considered as emoji characters. They won't make it onto, say, your iPhone.

Is it common for, say, an emoji to progress far into the process and then be rejected?

I think part of the purpose of the emoji subcommittee is to prevent that. So basically, what our job is on the emoji subcommittee is to screen all of the proposals to Unicode and either help them, help the authors, to develop their proposals so that they are more likely to be accepted, or if it's something that we don't think will really have a good chance to be added to Unicode, we probably will try discourage the author from continuing with their proposal.

How do you think emoji represent the LBGT community? How do you think it could still be better?

I know that Unicode tries to be very sensitive and tries to avoid any kind of political issues when it comes to coding new characters. I think that Unicode doesn't really try to give a voice for particular causes. Instead, they try to approach it in a way that they try to make tools for communicating existing realities. Because our concept of gender is evolving, I think that when I made my arguments for gender-inclusive emoji it really made sense to people, or at least I hope that it did. I think it's a good sign that the three characters that I proposed are accepted and will be in the next version of the standard.

Artwork by Paul D. Hunt, Adobe

The Unicode body doesn't really try to give a platform, so to speak, but I feel like emoji is kind of a very important communication tool in helping us communicate, especially around our identity and just how we see ourselves and more the state of our emotional lives. I think that my own personal belief is that emoji help us to better empathize, both as we try to communicate our intentions to other people and also when we receive it. That's just with emoji and they help us to kind of better understand and feel for what the person who sending the message is trying to say. I feel like having more emoji concepts to express issues around gender and around equality issues is only a good thing. Hopefully as people use and see these emoji, then it will help them to hopefully be able to think and empathize for the people who are using them.

Is it frustrating that emoji used to include the LGBTQ community can be seen as politicized?

I don't think it's really frustrating. In fact when I was working on my gender proposal, I felt like I was approaching it in the wrong way in the beginning. I was kind of approaching it from the angle of third-gender emoji, so that would be more specifically for people who don't identify as men or don't identify as women, but that was a very exclusive approach to gender and emoji. That's not really what I wanted. What I wanted was to be able to suggest a mechanism so that anybody could have an emoji that they felt like represented themselves. That's why when I talk about it, I talk about gender-inclusive emoji because instead of trying to exclude men or exclude women, what I want was to provide an option, a mechanism, for people or anybody to do have a human-looking emoji that hopefully helps, hopefully comes close enough to representing every person when it comes to gender.

That was my approach. I don't think it was frustrating. I think just because the topic of gender is, it is kind of a hard topic to talk about and to get your head around because our ideas about gender are evolving, and I think a lot of people are starting to change their views about what gender is and how gender works. I think that it wasn't a frustrating aspect. It was actually a very rewarding aspect to have conversations with people like yourself about gender and the need for having gender options for everyone and not just for men and women.

Artwork by Paul D. Hunt, Adobe

What emoji are you invested in now?

I think that it's hard to know what the world needs in terms of emoji. I think that we all have personal things that we would like to see added. I think what is needed to aggregate all of the different ideas that people have for emoji. Personally I would like to see a puzzle piece. I think that no only to people like puzzles but it also kind of has metaphorical usage. And then from time to time I think of things like a disco ball.

I think one of the great things about emoji is that they are so fun. I think that's why people love them so much.