World Emoji Day, one of those strangely recognized holidays that happens every year on July 17 (look at the calendar emoji and you'll understand why), is unlikely to change its name anytime soon. But events of the past two years, namely developments in technology that allow for new, more customized versions of the popular messaging icons, are vastly expanding the emoji universe and its presence in our everyday lives.
When iOS 12 rolls out to iPhone users this fall, it will come with Apple's brand new take on personalized emoji: Memoji. The create-your-own talking avatar approach, which takes advantage of advances in camera technology (just like Apple's Animoji), is not some recent, spur of the moment decision. It's a feature Apple has wanted to bring to life for years, seeing it as an opportunity to represent some of its core values.
"We loved what was happening in terms of inclusion and diversity within the emoji set, but we wanted to take that even further," Alan Dye, Apple's VP of User Interface Design, told Refinery29. "It’s always been our ambition to allow people around the world to create their own version of an emoji. Memoji has been a goal since the start."
The upcoming launch and significance of Memoji doesn't mean Apple is paying any less attention to the icons that started it all — emoji. Every February, Unicode, the organization that reviews emoji proposals, releases its approved list of new icons. From there, different platforms, from Twitter and Facebook to Apple and Samsung, go to work designing their own company-specific versions. That's why the new lobster emoji will look different in iMessage than it does in a tweet. (The emoji in this piece are a first look at 18 of the new designs Apple will release later this year.)
Although the design of a new emoji is arguably less high stakes than the design of the new iPhone — something that can directly impact sales — Apple treats the creation process the same way. "Despite the fact that emoji or the application of emoji might be kind of playful, the same amount of care and craft and rigor is applied to the design of emoji as to the design of any other product," Dye said.
For Apple, it can take anywhere from 15 to 30 different variations of a new emoji design in order to land on one that is "the most iconic, usable, and timeless representation of that new emoji." Each emoji needs to look unique while also fitting with the look and feel of the entire set of Apple emoji.
Dye famously came up with the idea to hand paint the corners of every iPhone box, an example of the attention to detail that chief design officer Jony Ive has made a hallmark of every Apple product. This same intricacy is evident in emoji, where Dye says the design team is "always looking for opportunities to include existing emoji in new emoji." You'll notice the UFO emoji is piloted by the alien emoji, while the newspaper emoji features an article on the emoji volcano erupting.
When it came to Memoji, meanwhile, perfecting every detail of each of the 85 different hairstyles was just one part of the immense task facing Apple designers.
"We became really obsessed with this notion of fluidity," Dye said. "We thought about fluidity in its broadest terms: The challenge we put to ourselves [was to make sure] that no choice the user would ever make, be it gender, age, ethnicity, or another signifier was precluding you from choosing any other option. So in other words, regardless of how you want to show up in the world and regardless of the choice you made around skin tone or nose style or hairstyle we didn’t want to send you down a different path that somehow made up a preconception about who you were."
This emphasis on fluidity is apparent when you begin creating a new Memoji. Instead of asking users to immediately choose between a male or female avatar, like Samsung does with its AR Emoji, Apple begins with a blank slate: A bald head. There is no mention of gender at any point of the design process. Although Apple offers nine skin tone variations, anyone who doesn't want to choose from one of those can pick from a larger color spectrum, opting for blue skin one day and pink the next. (One interesting tidbit on the design front: "Because we work so cross functionally within the studio, the same folks that think about portrait lighting and the camera helped us determine what sort of lighting techniques to use on the different skin tones that we chose," Dye said.)
When designing the Memoji hairstyles, which Apple worked with experts in global hairstyle and fashion to create, the team decided to remove sideburns from every look. They are offered as a separate category for a user to choose from, in order to allow each hairstyle to be available for both women and men. "Again, it’s a way of making sure we don’t send someone down a predetermined path," Dye said.
It's hard to imagine where Apple will take emoji next, and for now, Dye says the company is focused on its efforts with Animoji and Memoji. When Animoji rolled out last year, its adoption as a texting karaoke tool was one unexpected use case. (Apple later acted on the hype, releasing a series of karaoke-themed Animoji commercials.)
Apple doesn't yet know how users will take to Memoji when it is widely released later this year, but Dye has some ideas: "Personally, I’m excited about the combination of Memoji plus the camera system. I have a sense that Memoji selfies are going to be pretty popular."