87: Apple's emoji – one font fits all

I've been considering my thoughts on the progress of emoji since Apple released the first iOS 10.2 developer beta several days ago, setting off a flood of new emoji screenshots in my Twitter timeline. I'm glad that I delayed a bit, as this weekend was Emojicon. I follow three(!) people who were in attendance, so my timeline filled with smart thoughts (not just hot takes) about the past, present, and future of emoji.

Of course, there was discussion of the role of platform vendors in shaping style, use, and even meaning of emoji, and Apple is a major player. If that wasn't obvious years ago, it became so this summer when the iOS 10.0 betas kicked off the squirt gun / pistol controversy. The debate then centered on miscommunication — an innocuous symbol on iOS could appear as a violent one on Android, Windows, or the web. It also served as a crash course for many in how emoji actually work.

There's very little magic to emoji (setting aside ZWJs): the Unicode Consortium releases a specification that says what codepoints correspond to what characters. They provide reference descriptions and examples but they don't provide the actual glyphs. That's up to font makers to do for anything specified in Unicode, from the Latin alphabet English uses, to Cyrillic, to Japanese kanji, to emoji. That allows for considerable variation and stylistic choice.

Font design is not unfamiliar territory for Apple — it's one of the things that set the original Mac apart. Even working within the limits of ASCII encoding, there were emoji-like glyphs in Susan Kare's Cairo font that shipped in 1984. Recently, Apple has taken typography seriously by developing the (2014) San Francisco typeface and making it a hallmark of the Mac and iOS experience. I'm sure people complained when it replaced Helvetica on iOS, but nobody complained that it hindered their ability to express themselves.

Changing the system font or default font for iMessages should never prevent someone from sending a message today that they would have in the past. But some emoji have gained lives beyond their Unicode specifications. Here in Michigan, PART ALTERNATION MARK 〽️ looks enough like a yellow block capital M that it's become a stand-in for the University of Michigan's logo. Infamously, the cleft in the peach emoji has made enough people think it looks like a butt that 99% of its use does not represent fruit.

This is where Apple's emoji design can have weird ramifications. The change from a revolver that fires lethal bullets to a squirt gun that fires only water is a deliberate, possibly political change. But erasing an entire class of emoji use just by making a piece of fruit more photorealstic is something that might not have crossed the mind of an Apple designer. It seems like it's time to open up choice of emoji to users, especially when differences in emoji design are just a font away.

Unfortunately, Apple has largely locked down the ability to choose fonts on iOS. The iWork apps only offer a handful, unless you rely on third party apps like AnyFont to shoehorn new typefaces into iOS. Even in Notes, which has gained lots of rich text capabilities, the font has to be chosen on an application-wide basis. But such an option could be opened up for Messages, ensuring that "legacy" emoji meanings could be preserved by those who want them. This isn't antithetical to Apple's vision for Messages, considering that it's opened up third-party sticker pack creation to anyone with Xcode and a folder full of images.

If emoji don't fit people's needs, perhaps they will turn to stickers, but that would be a loss; the power of emoji is in their universality — their shared cultural currency wouldn't have the same value if iOS and Android had never adopted them. Users recognize the value of emoji, and they're open to expansive change. (I'm sure I'll send and receive lots of bacon and avocado emojis in the future.) But changes that limit utility are hard enough for people to adapt to when its just pure software. Emoji aren't a language, but they're part of modern communication. I hope Apple and all platform vendors will understand the monopoly power they hold and wield it carefully, so all their users can speak freely. 🍑