How New Emoji Are Changing the Pictorial Language


The contemporary one can still function that way, at times. But it’s so detailed and specific that its individual utility wanes. It’s not an icon for a cocktail, but a picture of a martini (a dirty one, with an olive, no less). That’s been the trend in emojiland: The cocktail has been joined by a beer (🍺), red wine (🍷), whiskey (🥃), and even a mai tai (🍹), for example. There are clinking glasses of both beer (🍻) and champagne (🥂). More granularity and specificity offer more choice, but those choices are no longer ideographic; they are pictographic at best, and perhaps merely illustrative. “I propose a tumbler of whiskey,” or “I salute you in the manner that a formal-event toast implies.” Counterintuitively, all these emoji are less applicable because they contain more information.


The drive to offer more detailed information is behind most appeals for additions to the emoji character set, so that condition is likely to amplify. For example, this year, a blood drop will be added to the emoji set. The Unicode Consortium considers flexibility of use as a part of its review of applications, and the blood drop has the potential to signify all manner of hematological activities, from donating plasma to nosebleeds.

But the design rankled some, who had hoped for an emoji explicitly designed to depict menstruation. The humanitarian nonprofit Plan International UK had held a contest to that end in 2017, and submitted the winner, a pair of “period pants” (underwear emblazoned with a blood drop) to the Unicode Consortium, which passed on the offer (a follow-up, the blood drop, was approved). In a riposte of the more generic design, Slate’s Shannon Palus lamented that the blood drop “will not be as useful for … symbolizing the thing it was designed to represent and normalize: periods.”

It makes sense that emoji should strive to cover the gamut of human experience; more than half of human beings menstruate at some point in time, so that’s a good place to exert effort. But more specificity means less flexibility. That is, an emoji that shares other possible meanings, among them menstruation, is assumed by Palus and others to be a less desirable design choice than one with a singular, fixed meaning. That idea might or might not have political merit, but it does represent a shift in the way emoji have been conceived, approved, and used since the iPhone made them globally popular in 2010. The assumption that more numerous, more specific emoji are automatically better seems to be spreading, too. Appeals in the form of there’s no emoji for … have almost reached meme status.

These factors have changed the way emoji get created, selected, and used. Writing about the rise of the dumpling emoji in Fast Company, Harry McCracken explained how the consortium debates the global fallout of new character designs, including the implications of specific forms of dumplings (gyoza? ravioli? pierogi?). The result (🥟), designed by Yiying Lu, was a “a romantic ideal,” according to McCracken, “aiming for something that could cross cultural borders.”





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