Meet the designer behind gender-neutral emoji

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Emoji tended to codify gender with traditional signs of masculinity (beard, mustache, short hair) and femininity (painted nails, longer hair, skirts). Hunt found this limiting, even disturbing: Why was a nurse a woman and a police officer a man? Why were “frivolous” activities like getting your nails painted or dancing depicted as feminine, while “serious” activities like construction were always depicted as masculine? Why were these images so staunchly gendered anyway?

Hunt decided to do something about this. They were already part of the Emoji Subcommittee, a group of designers and industry experts within the nonprofit Unicode Consortium, which works with hardware and software companies to make emoji readable and universal across all devices. So in 2016, Hunt submitted a proposal to push for gender-inclusive emoji, which they defined as “a humanized appearance that employs visual cues that are common to all genders by excluding stereotypes that are either explicitly masculine or feminine.”

It was revolutionary. To many, emoji were cutesy, simplistic additions to text, not humanistic and certainly not political. Hunt acknowledges as much, diplomatically saying there was a bit of skepticism from those running the committee. Some designers pointed to Google, which had tried to skirt gender and race with its yellow blobs in Gchat. On some level this worked, but Hunt found the accommodation a bit odd: Why couldn’t emoji express more of the nuances of human experience without resorting to abstraction?

Hunt’s proposal found an audience in Jennifer Daniel, who now leads the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee and has been instrumental in redefining the linguistics of emoji by ushering in an era that celebrates inclusivity and creative use of the symbols as a means of expression. 

Daniel told me that when she joined the subcommittee, in 2018, “none of them [the gender-inclusive emoji Hunt had proposed] were properly supported.” She pushed for implementation of Hunt’s proposal, releasing guidelines for the creation of a gender-neutral class of emoji as well. 

For Hunt, emoji are powerful means of expression precisely because words sometimes fail us. They recall meeting their future husband, an Australian, while living in San Francisco: “When you get to know someone, you build a common story together and develop your own little language.” That language for Hunt and their spouse included the heart emoji with sprinkles, which became a “logo” for the budding relationship. “That emoji meant a lot to me,” they say. “It still does.”