The Art & Science of Making Emoji

Emojis: they’re the characters that fill our text, tweets, and emails. But, as Adobe’s Paul D. Hunt explains, emoji don’t just happen.

by The Creative Cloud Team

posted on 12-13-2017

Emojis: they’re the characters that fill our text, tweets, and emails. But, as Adobe’s Paul D. Hunt explains, emoji don’t just happen. A Typeface Designer & Font Developer at Adobe, Paul designs and develops typeface families and fonts for the organization’s products and platforms. In addition to this work, Paul sits on Unicode’s Emoji Subcommittee, a key part of the Unicode Consortium which oversees emoji standardization and integration.

“Every letter that you read on screen has a numerical code that maps to that particular letter. The same is true for emoji,” says Paul. The characters were initially added to the Unicode Standard to “provide better information transfer between Japanese mobile phone carriers,” he adds. “And to provide access to emoji for companies such as Google and Apple, who wanted to start using them in their own products and services.”

The emoji integration process

Today, anyone can submit an emoji for consideration by the Unicode Consortium — but the process is challenging. “It’s a bit of a grueling process,” says Paul. “You really have to make a case for why this emoji character would be popular.”

Paul knows firsthand. Not only does he sit on the subcommittee that reviews and approves new emoji, but he recently submitted a proposal to integrate an orange heart into the standard. “If you look on your phone now, you’ll find hearts — red, yellow, green, blue, and purple. There’s a glaring omission: orange. I felt that was a hole in the set. You can’t make a full rainbow with the existing hearts.”

Recognizing this gap, Paul wrote up his recommendation. “I wrote about how there was meant to be a complete a set of colored hearts, and gave evidence that the orange heart would not only be used, but be popular. I looked at trends — online searches, blogs and Twitter, with people requesting an orange heart emoji.”

The creative process

Once approved by the consortium, new emoji characters need to be standardized. This is when Paul’s creative process begins. Like he would a new font or typeface, Paul creates black and white visuals of new emoji characters. “When I’m designing a new emoji glyph, I try to think of the emoji as something in between letters and pictures,” he says. “I try to use a more iconic style that’s very simplified and reduced down to a basic element just for clarity. It’s similar to what we do in type design — we consider the end usage and design to that usage.”

In the case of emoji, it’s predominantly online, explains Paul. “The emoji artwork I create is very simplified so people can look at it and know what it is instantly. But it still gives them room for interpretation.”

When creatives develop color versions for their own usage, “they can feel like they have the freedom to adapt the emoji to whatever visual style they’re using,” he says. “So I think about what the most iconic version of an orange heart, or a tumbler glass, or an egg, or a squid would be.” These emoji characters, he adds, have recently been — or are about to be — added to the standard — and the black and white representative glyphs in the Unicode charts are artwork Paul created.

Creating custom emoji images

Beyond these standardized characters — now approaching nearly 1,800 in total — brands, marketers, and creatives often develop their own “ZWJ” sequences. These “Zero Width Joiner sequences take two or more emoji and join them, creating a new emoji that typically represents a new concept.” He cites the popular “Ninja Cat,” a ZWJ emoji character used by Microsoft. “Windows users will have access to these ninja cat emoji, but it’s doubtful other emoji implementers will pick it up,” Paul explains. “I would call them ‘emoji ligatures.’ These are not actually formalized in the Unicode standard, though Unicode has been keeping some documentation on these emoji ligatures for public reference.”

As the emoji standard expands to incorporate more characters and people develop their own ZWJ sequences, Creative Cloud becomes increasingly central to the conversation. “Illustrator is the top-of-the-line tools for doing this,” says Paul. “I think that if people are drawing their own emoji imagery, Creative Cloud makes it easy to incorporate it back into their work and into any of our other applications. However, if people want to use or develop emoji fonts or a set of emoji to be deployed online, then that’s a different type of usage we’re still trying to grasp.”

Adobe, however, is leading the charge. “We are well aware people like using emoji and we’re trying to offer better, easier ways of integrating that into their communication. We’re also trying to enable people to easily create and use emoji fonts and emoji sets.”

The future of emoji

As for Paul’s perspective, he doesn’t see emoji going anywhere anytime soon. He believes these characters represent a seismic shift in global creativity and communication. “We all learn in two main ways: in a concrete and holistic way. Our brains try to do both of these functions at once as we try to understand the world around us.” Written language, he explains, only activates a portion of our brain — the portion “that’s the more systematizing cognitive model.”

Emoji breaks down these barriers. “I believe emoji taps into the more holistic and concrete way of communicating and learning that we don’t get with language alone. With emoji, you’re using language and image together, at a very high frequency. That helps to restore this balance of communication that’s been lost for some time — since the invention of the alphabet, really. Written language focuses more on the part of the brain that contains systemization. Imagery — and emoji is a great example — helps to activate the part of the brain that tries to make sense of our emotions and empathize with what’s being communicated.”

Because of the power emoji represents, Paul sees their role in global creativity and communications increasing in the coming months and years. “I would like to see emoji become this richer form of communication,” he says. “Just like we have thousands of fonts for our language, I’m hoping someday there will be as rich a variety of emoji fonts and emoji sets for people to communicate. I think that, as we embrace emoji, it will actually enrich our communication.”

Follow #HolidayEmojiWeek on Facebook and Twitter this week to learn how to create your own emojis for the holidays.

Topics: Creativity, Illustration

Products: Creative Cloud