Meet Jennifer Daniel, the woman who decides which emoji we use

Emoji are now part of our language. If you’re like most people, you adorn your texts, Instagram posts, and TikTok videos with various little images to increase your words – maybe the syringe with some blood flowing from it when you got your vaccination, praying (or -fiving?) hands as a shortcut for ‘thank you’, a rosy-cheeked smiley face with jazz hands for a safe Covid hug from afar. Today’s catalog of emojis includes nearly 3,000 illustrations depicting everything from emotions and food to natural phenomena, flags and people at different stages of life.

Behind all of these symbols is the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit group of hardware and software companies dedicated to making text and emojis readable and accessible to everyone. Part of their goal is to make languages ​​look the same on all devices; a Japanese character must be typographically consistent across all media, for example. But Unicode is probably best known for being the keeper of emoji: publishing them, standardizing them, and approving or rejecting new ones.

Jennifer Daniel is the first woman to head the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium and a strong advocate for inclusive and thoughtful emoji. She first became known for the introduction of Mx. Claus, a gender alternative to Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus; an unsexed person breastfeeding an unsexed baby; and a male face wearing a bridal veil.

Now, her mission is to bring emoji into a post-pandemic future in which they are as broadly representative as possible. This means taking on an increasingly public role, whether it’s with its popular and deliciously cheesy Substack newsletter, What would Jennifer do? (in which she analyzes the process of designing upcoming emojis), or inviting the general public to submit concerns about emojis and have their say if they are not representative or accurate.

“There is no precedent here,” Daniel says of his work. And for Daniel, it’s exciting not only for her but for the future of human communication.

I told him about his vision for his role and the future of emoji. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

What does chairing the emoji subcommittee mean? What are you doing?

It’s not sexy. [laughs] Much of it is about managing volunteers [the committee is composed of volunteers who review applications and help in approval and design]. There is a lot of paperwork. Lots of meetings. We meet twice a week.

I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I recently spoke to a Sign Language Linguist to learn how people use their hands in different cultures. How to make better hand gesture emoji? If the picture isn’t good or isn’t clear, it’s a dealbreaker. I constantly do a lot of research and consult different experts. I’ll be on the phone with a botanical garden on flowers, or a whale expert to get the right whale emoji, or a cardiovascular surgeon to get the anatomy of the heart down.

There is a former essay by Beatrice Warde on typography. She asked if a good typeface was a dazzled or transparent crystal goblet. Some would say the ornate one because it’s so chic, and some would say the crystal goblet because you can see and enjoy the wine. With the emoji, I lend myself more to the philosophy of the “transparent crystal goblet”.

Why should we care about the way our emoji are designed?

I understand that 80% of communication is non-verbal. There is a parallel in the way we communicate. We text how we speak. It’s informal, it’s cowardly. You stop to breathe. Emojis are shared with words.

When emoji first appeared, we had the misconception that they were ruining the tongue. Learning a new language is really hard, and emoji are kind of like a new language. It works with the way you already communicate. It evolves as you evolve. The way you communicate and present yourself is changing, and so are you. You can watch the nearly 3000 emoji and it [their interpretation] changes by age, gender or geographic area. When we talk to someone and make eye contact, you change your body language, and it’s an emotional contagion. It builds empathy and connection. It gives you permission to reveal it about yourself. Emoji can do that, all in one picture.

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