When Jennifer Daniel says that emoji miscommunications have ruined a few of her relationships, she’s only mostly joking.
The problem is how differently emojis are rendered across platforms like Android, iOS, Facebook, Samsung, and others.
When Daniel texts her husband the “octopus” emoji on her Android phone to signify how busy she is at work that day, he may wonder why she’s bragging about what she ate for lunch. The difference in “dizzy eyes” can cause all sorts of confusion, too (Apple’s rendition looks dead).
And the connotation of Samsung’s kind-of-sweet-looking “eye roll” used to have an extremely different vibe than the others. Ditto on “grimacing.” (Though, with a recent update, Samsung has started making its emojis more similar to other brands’.)
While emoji have become an part of our collective lexicon, Daniel thinks about and uses them more than most people because it’s quite literally her job: She’s the director of emoji for Google’s Android platform, the most popular smartphone platform in the world.
That doesn’t mean she personally decides what the next emoji will be, but she is responsible for deciding what makes an emoji “Googley” and designing it accordingly.
“I think every emoji is an extension of the brand,” she tells CNBC. “Apple really fetishizes design — that is a principle of everything they make — so it’s no surprise that all of their emojis are highly rendered and feel like real objects. At Google, we want you to smile when you think of our products, so we try to lean more into delight: Our emoji are a little more cartoonish. Samsung’s are more heavily influenced by anime.”
The selection process itself belongs to the Unicode Consortium, a group that includes Google, Facebook, Huawei, and Netflix, among others, which votes on fresh symbols every year. Anyone — yes, including you — can submit an emoji proposal, though there’s a fair amount of research and documentation required (for an idea of what it takes, check out the proposal for “broccoli”).
Once the Consortium releases its list, Daniel starts a design process that is both broad — “How might people use this emoji in a way we can design for?” — and highly detail-oriented — "What lines from a frisbee will make it feel like it’s spinning and moving forward?"
“Each emoji is labored over,” she says. “Everything is questioned.”
Daniel says that the potential for cross-platform emoji snafus (cue: dizzy face) happen because there is shockingly little communication between the big vendors as they start to interpret Unicode’s descriptions. She tries to think about how Apple may design a new emoji, not because she wants to copy it, but in order to mitigate mass consumer confusion.
“There’s not much conversation, but we’re trying to do more of that,” she says. “We’re both on the Unicode subcommittee for emoji, but those discussions are largely about content, experience and file-size, not design.”
These can be complicated discussions with political overtones.
For example, Unicode technically supports a genderless “person” emoji, but Google, and other platforms, are still struggling to support it. Daniel unequivocally believes in supporting non-binary emoji — and interracial couple or family emoji, too — but says it creates both a deeply complex UX problem and a file-size issue, too. Potentially, every human emoji could be available in “man,” “woman,” or “person,” with customizable skin-tone, but the trick is doing that in a way that’s not clumsy and doesn’t require a ton of phone memory.
Right now, Daniel says, people request biracial couples more than any other emoji.
“We’re getting to the point where recognizing yourself in your keyboard is more of an expectation,” she says.
When Daniel dreams about the future of emoji, she hopes for way more customization -- beyond people. Imagine being able to reverse the direction of any emoji or change its color. Turning an ocean wave red could signify menstruation, for example, since a more explicit period emoji didn’t make the cut last year.
“I think there will be a moment where it won’t just be about creating new emojis, it will be about creating experiences about how to interact with those emojis,” she says.
For example, Daniel loves how Snapchat lets its users create their own emoji combinations by layering them on top of each other in “collage” mode. Stack a peace sign over a smiley face and then add flowers to form a crown and you’ve got something completely new.
Making icons like that is how actually Daniels started her foray into emoji design. In 2014, as a graphics editor at the New York Times, she co-wrote an editorial about the emoji we really needed (you can find more of her custom emoji glyphs here).
If you had told me at the time that I would be designing emoji four years later, I would never, ever have believed that to be true,” she laughs.
Still, she sees the similarities between her life in journalism as what she’s doing now. In reporting, you spend a lot of time trying to understand how other people think. When she’s designing emoji for Google users globally, she’s constantly trying to expand beyond her own worldview, too.
“Reporting, you want to tell other people’s stories and there a huge responsibility in that,” she says. “And I try apply that same position to the emoji program.”
For some emoji inspiration, check out the replies to her recent Twitter thread about different, personal ways people use emoji:
Daniel’s current favorite emoji: The cowboy. “I find the regular smiley faces a little bit psychotic but the cowboy is like, ‘Yee-haw!’
Her least favorite: She calls “hug” the “cursed emoji,” in part because of how different it looks across platforms and how hard it is to get the design right for Google.
“If the hands are too far away then they look like feet. If they’re too close together it looks like they’re going to grope you.”
Daniel on the polarizing nature of emoji:
Daniel found herself at the center of a media frenzy after she tweeted that Google was removing the egg from its salad emoji to make it more vegan friendly.
While the move was really just intended to adhere more closely to Unicode’s description, people responded… passionately.
“People have very strong opinions on emoji,” she says. “You’ll see people using the emoji as a physical manifestation of their point of view.”