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The power of emoji: An interview with Jennifer Daniel

A conversation with Jennifer Daniel on how emoji are selected and encoded, and the big impact of tiny pictures.

In his book The Stuff of Thought, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker explores the outsized impact language has in shaping collective experience: “Semantics is about the relation of words to thoughts, but it is also about the relation of words to other human concerns…the relation of words to emotions: the way in which words don't just point to things but are saturated with feelings.” Pinker wrote The Stuff of Thought in 2007, the same year a proposal was submitted to add emoji into Unicode—an information technology standard for universal character encoding across writing systems. Google first introduced emoji in Gmail in October 2008, and Apple swiftly followed suit—albeit with a bit more “flair”—with Apple Color Emoji on iPhone OS in November 2008.

A decade and half later, it’s hard to imagine a world without 🙏, 😂, and ❤️. As we continue to spend more time in online spaces, emoji have been critical in bridging the gaps between face-to-face and virtual communication. “I think emoji are most effective when they're informed by how we primarily communicate, but aren't confined by it. You use emoji so that your intent is well understood,” says Jennifer Daniel, a creative director at Google and chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee of the Unicode Consortium, which is responsible for selecting new emojis, encoding them, and ensuring that they’re interoperable across platforms.

We spoke with Daniel about the way emoji step in to connect us when we’re apart, how they can be used in design, and why standards are important—particularly as we think about our increasingly virtual future. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Are emoji changing the way we communicate with each other, or just echoing the broader shift from physical to digital spaces?

They're supplementing it, for sure. In digital spaces, we take the things we naturally do, that we don't consciously think about—rhythm, cadence of speech, volume, eye contact, body language—and channel them through emoji. And it’s about picking the right emoji, and where you put it, to express all these kinds of things that you take for granted when you’re just talking face to face. As people get more familiar and use emoji more, they become second nature.

Is it fair to say that emoji has become a shared language, or does it all depend on the context in which they’re used?

Emoji don't encode new concepts. They encode things that have existed for as long as written communication has existed. They encode ideas that have been around since Ulysses. They encode things quoted in Shakespeare. And visual, gestural kinds of things, too. Long-standing concepts. So when you look at an emoji, you know how to use it because you've seen it before. Is "Heart on fire” a religious thing? Or is that heartburn? Or does it convey desire? It's all those things because it has been used in all those contexts before—as a tattoo, religious scripture, in advertisements for heartburn. These are multifaceted, just like the world we live in. And, there’s a difference between how people really use emoji, versus how people think they use them.

Emoji don't encode new concepts...They encode ideas that have been around since Ulysses.

How does the Emoji Subcommittee think about that difference?

Well first, the Emoji Subcommittee is a part of the standards body that is the Unicode Consortium, which is responsible for digitizing the world's languages. The Subcommittee makes sure that emoji are future-proof. Because when you add a code point to Unicode, you can never take it back. There are no do-overs, no deprecation—unlike most of tech culture, which is highly iterative, fast paced, and all about learning by shipping things out into the world.

Unicode is far more backwards looking, meaning that it takes things that already exist and then digitizes them, versus trying to create something new. The Emoji Subcommittee tries to reconcile where we are today in communication—fluid, transient, quick—with Unicode’s more methodical, grounded process. That comes with being a standards body.

How does this shape the way you actually select new emoji?

Once I understood how emoji are used to convey emotion, intent, body language, and volume, it totally changed my perspective on what the Emoji Subcommittee needed to prioritize: fewer buckets, saws, and shorts, and more expressions that strengthen our bonds.

Today, at 3,500+ emoji, we are inching closer and closer to the limit of what’s possible in the realm of device storage and complexity. So, our focus has become future-proofing emoji. We’re prioritizing globally relevant, communicative concepts that represent the fundamentals of human expression. New emoji should serve as building blocks that are versatile, fluid and useful. Inclusion of one specific emoji will almost always be at the exclusion of another (for example: a golden retriever emoji implies that we also need a poodle emoji). This means we reject many proposals for ideas that are important, popular and valid—but are overly specific or that depict something that can already be expressed.

Emoji proposals that are most likely to be selected in the future include those that are more broad and less specific, with multiple meanings and uses (such as metaphorical references or symbolism), and emoji that can be used alongside existing characters to say something new.

How do you reconcile the tension between emoji that convey nuance, and ones that are more general?

Everyone cares about emoji for different reasons. Some people really fetishize the specificity. Some people can't be bothered with it. So different people can look at the same image and think different things.

I think there is a non-trivial population that believes broad is best. And then there's probably another group that wants more specificity, more emoji, more, more. And I think what's great about those extremes is that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. That tension is important as long as it's productive.

While the Emoji Subcommittee prioritizes “globally relevant, communicative concepts that represent the fundamentals of human expression,” Google's Emoji Kitchen takes two emoji and fuses them to create expressions that are nuanced and specific

How important is context?

An emoji can be as specific or broad as you use it. The specificity has a large spectrum. For example, think about when someone laughs. Is it a belly laugh, a frog chuckle? Is it like a TV show? Is it just a silent laugh in your head? How many emoji do you need for that range of laughter? Or, do you just need one to indicate that it's the abstract idea of funny?

I've never made this analogy before, but it's like a greeting card for someone. You never just give it to them without signing it. Maybe you haven't written a special inscription but, bare minimum, you put your name in it. You imprint on it a little bit.

With Bitmoji and Reacji, it seems like the “ji” suffix is everywhere. What’s next?

I’ll put it like this—there was a time where if you wanted to tweet, you had to text 40404. Similarly, where emoji were and where they are now is fundamentally different. Everyone relied on emoji as the only visual primitive in communication for a period of time, but that is not the case anymore. We've eclipsed emoji entirely. We have stickers and gifs and memes and videos, and I'm sure I'm missing all kinds of things that are at our fingertips.

Because Bitmoji can operate without a standards body, they can do whatever they want. They don't have to care about interoperability because it renders as an image. There's all these other things that exist that have the suffix -moji [like Apple’s Memoji, Google’s Emoji Kitchen], but really aren't emoji. They're pictures. Tiny pictures.

Reacji can animate. That's the thing that emoji, currently, with the existing font standard, can't do. I think the font standards will evolve and we'll see what happens next.

Everyone relied on emoji as the only visual primitive in communication for a period of time, but that is not the case anymore. We've eclipsed emoji entirely.

Speaking of font standards evolving, you recently worked on a project to turn stickers into a variable font. What did you draw on from your work in emoji?

When we communicate, say, over text, we basically say the same things over and over again. We say a lot of, “Thank you,” “Please,” “Okay, got it,” “On my way.” These are all static expressions, and they’re kind of boring. When you want to say thank you, you want the person to know that you're actually grateful, even if they can’t see your face or hear your tone of voice.

We thought that making a sticker for these phrases would feel so much more interesting. You can actually pick the font color or customize it with someone's name, depending on which template you choose. Since it’s a variable font [fonts that allow for different variations of a typeface], it has a wide spectrum of weights. So maybe they can't see it in your eyes, but sharing something special makes them feel it more.

How do you think about future-proofing interoperable representation as our digital environments become less centralized and more fluid?

As people start scratching that itch for the metaverse, or the AR/VR space, the question inevitably will be: what about interoperability for avatars? The avatars of today are pixel-based—they’re just a picture, so you don’t have to worry about interoperability.

Emoji aren't avatars. They’re a font. The beauty of emoji is that you can copy and paste them everywhere or anywhere without any editing software.

As we look to the future, will we be able to agree on the characteristics of physical representation? It's crazy to think about, but necessary if we want to be able to have experiences in which you can walk in and out of different spaces. Without standardization, your experience in different tech platforms will be radically different. You'll have to relearn it every time you interface, creating a new character each time.

As someone who cares a lot about the nuance and semantics of emoji, how do you approach designing them? What’s most exciting or important to you?

What I love to see is people building—not necessarily on top of emoji— but in the infinite creativity of the universe. I'm so glad that emoji aren’t the only visual primitive we rely on. We have so many other formats to express ourselves, like stickers, even GIFs, avatars, video, filters. Emoji are just one of many things. Emoji are an extension of how you speak and how you talk—in whatever format, it’s all about being seen, heard, and understood.

So, I’d suggest using them with as much thoughtfulness as you would choose a word, or a color, or a hierarchy, which is to say, with intentionality. And that's something that design allows you to do. It allows you to look forwards and backwards simultaneously.

For more on all things emoji, subscribe to Jennifer Daniel’s Substack and join the conversation on Twitter.

Alia Fite is a writer and editor on Figma's Content & Editorial team. She has previous experience at Stripe and Dropbox.

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