The Group That Approves Emojis Debuts New User-Friendly Website

Unicode Consortium got a massive update from Adobe

Screenshot of unicodes home page showcasing different emojis and codes
The redesign focused on inclusivity for the visually impaired, among other changes.
Unicode

Just in time for World Emoji Day, the nonprofit Unicode Consortium in charge of approving new emojis has debuted a more user-friendly website.

A few years ago, the average person wouldn’t have cared about a group of tech execs and designers in charge of maintaining the standards for every type of text that goes into every type of phone around the world.

The Unicode Consortium, based in San Francisco, approves things like making sure the look and feel of everything from Mandarin to Mayan is consistent. It’s also in charge of a far more universal language: emojis. As emojis have rapidly become part of modern electronic communication, they’ve raised the profile of Unicode. But until now, its website was stuck with a look and feel dating back far before Facebook.

Greg Welch, a board member at Unicode Consortium, said the previous version was “not exactly presenting a friendly face to the public at large.” But with more people visiting it to learn about the emoji-approval process, he said it was time to “put a friendlier front end on it.”

The new branding for Unicode

Designed by Adobe, the new site uses a blue-and-white color scheme that’s more easily identifiable by people who are colorblind or visually impaired. It’s also far brighter and softer than the previously clunky Web 1.0 maroon. On the homepage, emojis are displayed almost like a periodic table and change as the page is reloaded.

“We’re not about photography, we’re not about video,” Welch told Adweek. “For Unicode, the characters are the hero, and the homepage features an always-changing array of characters.”

The design also is also meant to help people understand the importance of preserving languages and takes into consideration the international nature of an organization like Unicode, which needs to be as relevant to someone in Chicago as, say, Chengdu, China.

In a statement explaining the website’s new look, Suzi Slavik, a designer at Adobe Design, said there was a focus on inclusivity because Unicode’s work “is at the very foundation of digital communication, self-expression, creativity… so vast and yet intimately human all at once.” (An Adobe product manager, Nicole Minoza, also serves on Unicode’s board.)

A screenshot of the old unicode website

How emojis took over the internet

When Unicode was founded, its basic purpose was to standardize all of the characters used by phones, servers, computers and software so what’s typed on one device would be seen consistently on the other. It began with languages like English and French. Next came pictographic languages like Japanese and Chinese, then Islamic scrips and later Mayan hieroglyphs so that people studying even ancient languages could easily communicate about them.

Then came emojis. Over the past five years, the number of submissions it receives from individuals, groups and even companies has grown. That’s part of the reason for the redesign: to explain the process, which isn’t quick. On average, it takes about two years from the time a proposal is submitted to when it goes public. That’s partially because of the time it takes to review, change, approve and implement in time for the next line of smartphones. It’s also meant as a way to weed out ideas that haven’t been sufficiently thought through.

“Adding new emoji is a non-trivial process,” he said. “You are asking to add something to the global standard that will ultimately make its way into every single computer on the planet. That is an engineering task that is not be taken trivially and lightly.”

A webpage of Unicode Emoji 12.0

How a new emoji gets made

There is a variety of criteria Unicode uses when deciding whether to approve an emoji. Welch said the company reviews data about search results to gauge interest. They also look at the scope of use. Does an emoji have various meanings? Is there evidence that it could be useful? Is it unique? Proposals also go through a two-phase design process, one for function and another for aesthetics.

The process is also the subject of a new documentary that debuted this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film, “Picture Character”—named after the English translation of the Japanese word for “emoji”—follows three groups through their efforts to approve emojis for the hijab, the Argentinian beverage mate and menstruation. It also showcases the evolution of communication while also asking questions about whether one group should have so much control over something so universal.

“I have been really surprised at the sustained interest and continued interest in seeing more and more emoji added to the set,” Welch said. “And it really begs the question—and I don’t think we’ve come to a point where we have an answer to this—but what are emoji really? What function do they actually serve?”