Apple, give me back my emoji

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What have you done, Apple?

You took an entire visual lexicon used by millions of people every day, and changed it. You destroyed iconic images and needlessly tweaked perfectly good ones. Why? Why would you do this? I want my peach butt. I want my cartoon moon. I want my candy heart. I want my emoji back. But you’ll never give them to me.

I actually have to admit I was never a fan of the Apple emoji in the first place. To me they screamed tacky clip art, all color gradients and faux depth. I liked Google’s gumdrop faces, Microsoft’s bold lines, Samsung’s strong characterization.

emojisBut the fact is, most people used Apple’s because they were early to the game and the iPhone was the most popular single brand. Most of my friends have iPhones, but I use Android, so I switched emoji sets rather than guess at what others might be seeing. The threat of misinterpreting emoji is real!

So although I never liked the style, I made use of it, as you do. Like writing in a restrictive meter or shooting in monochrome, the limitation makes the process of expression interesting in itself. They grew on me, as I know they grew on countless others, and we developed shared visual vocabularies.

And because we have used them so often in recent years, we have come to know them much as we know ordinary words. They developed their own connotations, nuances, innuendos — some seemingly accidental, others slyly intentional.

Emoji are interesting to me because they are a mobile-native language — deliberately visual, distinct and glanceable — that both embraces and subverts the intentions of its designers. The language of emoji, as insipid as it sometimes seems, is actually a mountain of context and very human metadata that makes it, like so much visual communication, richly expressive.

The foundation for all that is the images themselves. Redesigning the basis for this incredible and popular form of communication is an act of destructive cultural revisionism.

Okay, yeah, that’s putting it a little strongly, since it’s just a bunch of icons people use to chat with online, but it really does erase a huge amount of context and history, and the gains are slim to none. The changes Apple made to the emoji — I’m not talking about Unicode’s welcome and long overdue gender and skin color modifiers, by the way — are pointless at best and often damaging.

What was the rationale behind, for example, changing the shading on the fruit? What about adjusting the portions in the curry? Changing the perspective on the wine glass? Why have some items gained gloss, while others lost it? Why invert the burrito? Why censor the peach? Why darken the fish cake?

There’s no reason for any of these things. It’s as if Apple told its designers, “go through every emoji and change it a bit, doesn’t matter how.”

Design without purpose isn’t really design. If the replacement isn’t better than the original, why are they replacing it? And if they don’t understand what made the originals valuable — the familiarity and shared symbolism of those exact images —  doesn’t that make them poor caretakers of this cultural capital?

Apple won’t roll back these changes, of course. I know this is basically “blogger yells at cloud.” But it’s disappointing to me because I’ve genuinely enjoyed the emerging phenomenon of emoji use, and this move is, like so many by Apple lately, a tone-deaf and user-unfriendly one.

It would be nice to have an open messaging framework where we could choose how our emoji look on other devices, but I’m not holding my breath. But perhaps these new emoji will provide a blank slate on which to build another visual lexicon. I guess they’ll have to — it’s not like we have a choice.