In 1999, the Japanese wireless communications company NTT Docomo released 176 pictures for people to quickly, efficiently, and emotively communicate on the tiny screens of their phones. Twenty years later, and we now have over 3,000 emoji and counting. On the one hand, emoji are getting more inclusive. They finally feature same sex parents, female scientists, and people in every skin tone other than Simpsons yellow. On the other, as these icons become more inclusive, each becomes less universal.
Jennifer Daniel, designer at Google, thinks about this deep irony at the heart of visual language all the time. She traces it back to the age-old problem with the male bathroom symbol. “That person could be man, woman, anyone,” she says. “But they had to add a little detail, that dress, and suddenly that person symbol doesn’t mean person anymore; it means man. And that culture means a man-centered culture.”
While Daniel can’t fix our bathroom signage, as the director of Android emojis, she can fix another problem: The lack of gender-neutral symbols in texting. She can give us the zombies, merpeople, children, weightlifters that are neither male nor female. “We’re not calling this the non-binary character, the third gender, or an asexual emoji–and not gender neutral. Gender neutral is what you call pants,” says Daniel. “But you can create something that feels more inclusive.”
Google is launching 53 updated, gender ambiguous emoji as part of a beta release for Pixel smartphones this week (they’ll come to all Android Q phones later this year). Whether Google calls them “non-binary” or not, they have been designed to live between the existing male and female emoji and recognize gender as a spectrum. Given that Google collaborates with many of its rivals on emoji, it’s likely that Apple and others will release their takes on genderless emoji later this year.
The new gender-fluid emoji will launch as part of a Pixel smartphone beta release this week, with a roll out to all Android Q phones planned for later in 2019, at which point they’ll join the recently released emoji designed to better represent people with disabilities.
As Fast Company points out, Google collaborates with Apple and other tech companies when developing emojis, so we could see others release their own versions of the new gender-fluid emoji in the near future.
The designs shared with Fast Company exhibit many of the same features of the more gendered emoji, but with tiny tweaks that make the characters appear neither male nor female — or perhaps both.