Unless your computer is more than 30 years old, you should see Cyrillic Russian characters for the phrase “Hi!” above. If your computer was made before 1991, you’ll see mojibake: the jumbled text that results when a computer doesn’t recognize the characters it’s being asked to display. ASCII, the American text character standard widely used through the 1980s, only had 128 character slots, so you can be sure Cyrillic didn’t make the cut.
With a networked, globalized world on the horizon, however, it became clear that computers’ understanding of and ability to read text characters was too local.
In 1987, three engineers from Xerox, PARC, and Apple began discussions to design a universal computer alphabet. This new alphabet wouldn’t just contain every phoneme in a single language — it would list every possible text character that could appear on any computer, anywhere in the world. With the collaboration of countless engineers, internationalization experts, librarians, information specialists, linguists, programmers, and standardization buffs, they built and refined this master list and lobbied for its adoption across all major computer vendors.
In 1991 Unicode was published and implemented worldwide. The Unicode Consortium, a non-profit made up of representatives throughout the tech industry, was also founded to maintain and expand the alphabet over time. Unicode is:
“Universal”: it incorporates character sets from languages all over the world.
“Uniform”: every single character, when translated into a binary number, is represented by the same amount of 0s and 1s. No character is more efficient than any other when saved to your hard drive. All characters are created equal.
“Unique”: each character is assigned its own unique number, forming a precisely-ordered list. The power of Unicode comes from standardizing this list for every computer.
Emojis sprung from the primordial soup of the Unicode standard. Over the years, a variety of image characters slipped into Unicode slots, but these quirky characters were only ever fringe. Emojis, on the other hand, comprised their own alphabet, intended as a primary and universal means of communication. In Unicode, each emoji is defined by a short text description, like:
Night with stars.
These descriptions are cemented permanently in Unicode. Unicode, however, does not enforce what Emojis look like.
When designing the e-mail template for this season of Avery Shorts, I quickly realized that emojis are displayed differently depending on the email platform, and I found myself stuck in the middle of a tug-of-Unicode-war between tech companies — all scheming to universalize their own emojis. Apple makes sure its own emojis are used in all of its apps on the iPhone.🙄 On a browser, Twitter and Google strip out all emojis and replace them with their own JPEGS.😱 Android phones use the Google emoji set, which is quite different from and more limited than Apple’s.🤭 Microsoft computers have their own emoji set too.😬
I created the Avery Shorts Simple Emoji Tool (ASSET)™ to wrangle all the differences between the various emoji sets and consistently place emojis within a grid. The above gif shows Apple and Google emojis taking up roughly the same space. The tool uses the size of the Google emoji JPEGS as its standard unit of measure, since JPEGS cannot stretch but most other emojis can. It uses ~655 emojis that are guaranteed to display similarly across most devices.
The Avery Shorts Simple Emoji Tool (ASSET)™
Emojis bring Unicode’s limits to the fore. They are limited by proprietary warfare between tech giants and in the enforcement of which emojis are supported and updated. At their worst, emojis bring us back to where we were 30 years ago: an “e”-mojibake of sorts. ASSET™ is an experiment in finding spatial consistency across several common emoji sets, a pursuit which by definition is a touch absurd — emojis are evolving all the time in front of us. In 30 years, the emojis in this email will look completely different.