Google is releasing 53 new gender-fluid emoji on Pixel phones in beta this week, and will add them to all Android Q phones later this year. Fast Company reports that the emoji, which have been specifically designed to appear neither male nor female, are Google’s attempt at simplifying the emoji keyboard with more universal characters. It’s a modern interpretation of emoji’s previous default: the little yellow man.

The number of emoji has ballooned to over 3,000 since the original 176 symbols were released back in 1999. Some of these are entirely new characters and symbols, but others are new race and gender combinations for existing emoji. The current approach is more inclusive, but it has its problems. It makes the emoji keyboard more difficult to parse, and even then it’s almost impossible to include every possible combination of skin tone and gender in emoji featuring multiple people.

Another problem is that emoji designs sometime have different genders when the core Unicode standard doesn’t specify one. For example, Google’s design for the person in a sauna is female, but on iOS the character is male. This means the emoji’s gender can change when messages are sent between platforms, creating confusion.

Google’s new approach, which we saw the first signs of last year in Android Pie, is to create emoji designs that could conceivably be either male or female. The approach varies between the different characters. Some have genderless mid-length hair, while the dracula emoji has had its clothes changed to an androginous chain rather than a bow-tie (male) or choker (female). Meanwhile, the genderless merperson has its arms crossed in front of its bare chest to obscure it.

Gender is a spectrum, in emoji format.
Image: Google

There’s no singular way of getting it right,” admits Google designer Jennifer Daniel to Fast Company. “Gender is complicated. It is an impossible task to communicate gender in a single image. It’s a construct. It lives dynamically on a spectrum. I personally don’t believe there is one visual design solution at all, but I do believe to avoid it is the wrong approach here. We can’t avoid race, gender, any other number of things in culture and class. You have to stare it in the face in order to understand it. That’s what we’re trying to do–to [find] the signifiers that make something feel either male or female, or both male and female.”

For now, the 53 new emoji are exclusively a Google project, meaning that if you send them to a non-Google smartphone they’ll still be assigned a gender. However, Daniel thinks that other companies will eventually adopt a similar approach. In the long-term, Daniel wants all emoji to be more universal. That doesn’t mean the old gendered emoji will disappear (they could still be accessible via a contextual menu) but the gender inclusive emoji could become the new default on the emoji keyboard.

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