As a typeface designer for Adobe, Paul Hunt spends most of his time creating the building blocks of written language. Fonts communicate more than just the words on the page; the way they arc, curve, bulge, and taper can shape the way a message is received. (Looking at you, Comic Sans.) But recently, Hunt turned his graphic-design expertise toward a totally different identity issue: gender.
Last week, Unicode—the international body that approves and encodes all new additions to the pictographic canon (duh)—released its latest version, which of course means new emoji. And Version 10.0 doesn’t disappoint. In addition to the emoji you’ve always wanted (“face with open mouth vomiting,” “dumpling”) and the ones you never knew you wanted (“merperson,” “sauropod”), there are three that Hunt has spent the last year and a half working on in his capacity as a member of Unicode's Emoji Subcommittee. Dubbed simply “child,” “adult,” and “older person,” they’re the world’s first genderless emoji.
Thought some emoji were already genderless? Not so much. Even those winking, frowning, cry-laughing yellow blob-faces scan as male. As Hunt learned from conducting online surveys, he says, "there's a tendency in our culture to view things as masculine by default." On the other hand, emoji explicitly meant to represent women and girls are overly gendered—doe-eyed, lipsticked, and hairstyled to the point of reading as feminine caricatures. So for people who don't believe gender is either-or, or don't identify as a particular gender, there weren't great options.
At a Unicode meeting in Redmond, Washington last fall, Hunt debuted his first sketches to other committee members. The works in progress hewed to his personal notion of androgyny—pageboy haircut, thin lips, no eyelashes—but his colleagues still only saw male faces.
So Hunt spent months researching gender biases, incorporating his findings into each new iteration of his designs and talking about them with gender-nonconforming friends and colleagues. A more tousled look, maybe? Nah, too boyish. So add some length? Yeah, that's closer. Finally, he hit on something that seemed to work: short pieces of hair peeking out from behind the ears, kind of like a pixie cut. He adopted versions of it for child, adult, and older adult emoji, and in November, Unicode voted to include them in Version 10.0.
Inclusion had been Unicode's goal all along. When it first introduced its standards for human characters back in 2010, they weren't supposed to read as male or female. But Apple—which, like every provider, is free to iterate on top of Unicode's baseline designs—wanted something more personal. So for iPhone users, "information desk person" became "information desk lady," and "construction worker" became "male construction worker." Customers seemed to like these better, so Google (and everyone else) made similar tweaks.
But later, as these companies scrambled to build out a more representative character set—adding skin colors and letting women be police officers too—they ended up creating a hyper-binary keyboard. For the 50 percent of people under 35 who don't believe in a dualistic conception of gender, not seeing themselves or their friends in their emoji can be difficult, even harmful. "If there are no good options to represent yourself in our emoji system," Hunt says, "it's harder to get people to empathize with you."
As a queer man (and former Mormon), Hunt knows something about being misunderstood: He was put on probation as a student at Brigham Young University for "homosexual behavior." At Unicode, he brings sensitivity and compassion to his work, constantly fretting that the result won't satisfy everyone. He knows this first generation of gender-inclusive emoji, for instance, isn't perfect, and he wishes he had more time to test the offerings more widely. But the important thing, he says, is that they’re going to be out there. He hopes feedback from users will make future generations even better.
It will take a few months for artists at Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and all the other vendors to adapt Unicode’s designs for their respective platforms. But you can expect Hunt’s binary-breaking emoji to be emerging from the digital closet and onto your phone by the end of 2017. Then, we might get a bit closer to Unicode's original vision: faces that represent everyone.
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