Hearts are some of the most frequently used emoji and there's plenty of love to go around

❤️️🧡💛💚💙💜🤎🖤🤍

No one:

Absolutely no one:

Me: The more Unicode Standard can operate as building blocks instead of specific concepts the more versatile, fluid, and useful emoji become.


But what does that even mean? Like, it’s a cute meme but what do “building blocks” look like when you’re creating, proposing, and designing emoji?

It looks a lot like: ❤️️ 🧡 💛 💚 💙 💜 🤎 🖤 🤍

If you want to understand the versatility of simplicity there’s no better place to look than the heart emoji. Hearts are among the most frequently used type of emoji and the nine-colored hearts are often juxtaposed next to each other to denote markers of emotion (“I'm sorry 💙” or “love you ❤️”) and identity or affiliation that are not represented with atomic emoji in the Unicode Standard (ex. Support of Belarus: 🤍❤️🤍, “Hi I’m bi 💖💙💜”, and yes even sports teams (“Go Mets! 💙🧡” ).

While the original intent of adding a small set of colored emoji (🟥 🟧 🟨 🟩 🟦 🟪 🟫 ⬛ ⬜)to the Unicode standard was to lay the technical groundwork to standardize color variation using ZWJs …….. there has been little to nearly no adoption (just one emoji: 🐈‍⬛). On one hand it is a brilliant technical solution to add more customization but on the other hand …. conflating color variants with species is a bit of misnomer. Skin tone is not a race. Gender is not a haircut. Color is not a species. And ugh, if one emoji gets color variants then they all get color variants — it’s horrifyingly open-ended. Oy. The more I think about color emoji the more I wonder why emoji are in color to begin with. Make them black and white and call it a day!!!

Grumpy old lady rants aside, identifying strategies and solutions that don’t require Unicode to add a new emoji every time someone wants to express how they feel means everyone benefits. Sadly, I’d no longer have The Unicode Consortium to blame for my emotional constipation and how I express myself would be limited only by my own imagination. 🤣 (This is your periodic reminder that language is a low-bandwidth technology and it's totally normal to feel frustrated by the constraints you feel when trying to squeeze your infinitely prismatic emotions into its limited scale.)

It started with a shit post

What first got me interested in emoji was a desire to reduce miscommunication. I mean, who wants to be misunderstood??? We got spiral eyes sending as X eyes. We got merpeople changing into mermen. Don’t get me started on all the different directions megaphone and magnet emoji are facing. It is deeply annoying!! We can’t even agree on what color “green” to make the “green heart” emoji.

Everyone’s favorite anonymous unicode twitter account, FakeUnicode, has a point here. This visualization makes a pretty compelling case that we had some room for improvement. This tweet lived rent-free in my head for years. Then, a paper was published that revealed colored hearts are the most common emoji used in non-messaging spaces like Twitter bios. That’s when I knew the moment had come: it’s time to investigate hearts and see if we can strengthen the set by broadening their range of utility.

Investing Gaps in Colored Hearts

The first step was to get a sense of the status quo. Below is a visualization of where different emoji fonts fall on a color spectrum. It neatly illustrates color spaces that are more dense than others, specifically large gaps between blue and green and red and pink. They also suggest that if vendors slightly adjust the color of their yellow, green, and blue emoji we’d have a more even distribution without the need to add new colors.

Caption: While the upper left quadrant is quite crowded, there are clear leaps between red and purple, purple, and blue, cyan and green, and green and yellow. Most vendors put Purple too close to Blue, and Blue too close to Cyan. Green is often too yellow. Image with permission and courtesy of @fakeunicode

Identifying the Additional Colors

Existing literature in cross-linguistic study of color terms suggests there are a maximum of 11 basic color terms across cultures (Basic Color Terms, Berlin & Kay 1969). As languages evolve, they acquire new basic color terms in a broadly predictable sequence; if a basic color term is found in a language, then the colors of all earlier stages are typically present. The sequence is as follows:

  • Stage I: Dark-cool and light-warm (covers a larger set of colors than just English "black" and "white".)

  • Stage II: Red

  • Stage III: Either green or yellow

  • Stage IV: Both green and yellow

  • Stage V: Blue

  • Stage VI: Brown

  • Stage VII: Purple, pink, orange, or gray

Of these, the current set of heart emoji are only missing PINK and GREY, both ‘Stage VII’ color terms. Basic Color Term theory has been debated and problematised, but it still provides some useful basis for the approach to the expansion of the range of colored hearts available.

One of the problems is that it doesn’t account for major languages that have two distinct basic terms for blue. We do not presume that the lexical patterns found across languages represent fixed cognitive perspectives, for example we do not presume that people can only distinguish between the colors if they have distinct terms for them, or that they will only be useful if the color terms are lexified in a particular language. We do not presume that all people will find the additional hearts equally useful, but that each provides more flexibility for the current emoji set. Using Basic Color Terms as a theoretical underpinning of this strategy document means we are likely covering the broadest possible set of basic colors in a large number of languages and cultures.

This is all to say there is a compelling rationale for adding LIGHT BLUE as there are languages, including Russian and Korean, which do not have a single basic color term for blue, but divide the space in two. 

Caption: As you can see in the above, the “blue” area in English is used almost to the left end of the graph where the greens are, while in Korean and Russian, the dark blues (“파랑” and “синий”) only extend part way to green, and there is a significant light blue color (“하늘” and “ голубой”) which extends the rest of the way to green. Source: https://medium.com/hci-design-at-uw/there-is-no-blue-in-korean-ea6ac0d25d34

For an emoji to be “globally relevant” it has to be grounded in some relative universality. If someone didn’t grow up with a word for pink will they understand that it is not red? Not likely. English speakers do not generally consider the distinction between light purple and dark purple to be a basic distinction, but that doesn’t mean we expect the Los Angeles Lakers to play in lavender uniforms. ^_^

So the good news there seems to be only a few gaps in the color spectrum of emoji offerings to complete the set without having to add every color perceptible to the human eye. ;-) Will encoding a finite number of additional colored hearts unlock a much broader range of expression and representation? Or, will it just be more of the same?

Let's talk flags

Caption: Sub-regional flags broken down by color. The addition of light blue and gray would extend coverage of representation. Chart by Adam Peirce, used with permission. Source: https://blocks.roadtolarissa.com/1wheel/ba7b6295c9e3e9aea7b164e1e22e9366

If we want to avoid emoji-bloat, identifying emoji additions that have multiple-uses is increasingly important as emoji gain in popularity. Flag emoji are the bulk of emoji fonts’ file size and yet they are the least frequently used of all emoji.

A primary motivating factor when considering the addition of a PINK, GREY and LIGHT BLUE heart emoji is how they operate as building blocks particularly to meet demand for identity flags (sexuality, gender, sports, subregional, etc.). Many of these flags draw upon PINK, GREY and LIGHT BLUE in their design:

PINK
Bisexual flag
Pansexual flag
Polysexual flag
Genderfluid flag
etc.

GREY
Aromantic flag
Asexual flag
Demiromantic flag
Demisexual flag
Agender flag
etc.

LIGHT BLUE
Pansexual flag

But wait… there’s more! There are a number of sports teams, whether local, college or national level that would benefit from expanding the color range (ex. Currently fans of the San Antonio Spurs are missing the sliver/grey heart, and their colors are listed as one of the five most popular color schemes in US sport today. )

Required Modifications

Improving emoji doesn’t always mean adding new ones — sometimes existing designs would benefit from a little love. In order to add these three new emoji we’re gonna have to also shift the hex values of existing heart emoji for more even distribution. Again a nifty chart that illustrates the existing set of heart emoji with colors shifted   to accommodate possible additions:

And…. our possible future with the addition of Pink Heart and Light Blue Heart:

There you have it! Ahh, that’s better. Now, what to do about those magnet emoji…. 🧲

💘
— jennifer


If you have an emoji question or topic you’d like me to consider writing about, let me know! 💌