There are 3,000 emoji on our phones today, including variants in gender and skin tone. And yet it can still be hard to find just the right one. So we settle for a sentiment that’s a little bit off. Or we stack them together to make a sentence of images. Or we just type real [ick] words [ick] instead.
Today, Google is launching something new. Called Emoji Kitchen, it’s baked into the stock keyboard running on just about every Android device other than Samsung phones (which preloads its own). And it’s a way to combine multiple emoji into one.
We’re talking a kissy face with pleading, child eyes. We’re talking a ghost wearing a cowboy hat. We’re talking about a poop and a heart, together at last.
“A lot of it is based on how we communicate digitally,” says Jennifer Daniel, creative director for Google emoji, about the project. “We see people wanting to play with emoji as they do with words, mashing them together . . . to make new concepts.” Emoji Kitchen takes this idea to the next level, replacing the short phrases of emoji that you might use into single images that convey multiple ideas into one.
The idea might sound silly or superfluous, but in practice, it expands the expressiveness of the emoji we have today. Daniel points to one of her favorite mashups, the octopus emoji with the pleading eyes emoji. These are two emoji you could put side by side, but they wouldn’t necessarily make sense or say something new or decipherable. On the other hand, combined into one image, you get a frazzled octopus, overworked, with eight arms moving every direction.
One catch is that the interface doesn’t let you pair up emoji on your own (which would be endlessly entertaining, right?). Instead, the keyboard will suggest a few alternative mashup emoji for any stock emoji—so pick a cowboy and the UI will offer you a cowboy monkey, and a cowboy blowing a kiss, and a cowboy crying with joy, one of which you might want to use instead. There are about 800 of these combined emoji in all, which were designed inside Google. (Technically, they are texted out as stickers—little images—rather than emoji. That’s because Google doesn’t control the shared standard of emoji used by companies across the globe.)
Given that the selection of mashups is curated, the team wanted to get the first options right. “Trying to understand what people’s expectations are is a big part of the strategy around this,” says Daniel. “If you really look at the emoji people pair next to each other, they’re quite similar. People pair hearts with hearts, or the party balloon with the birthday cake. I don’t see a lot of people put the cowboy hat and the disappointed face.” Furthermore, if you do combine those two emoji, which characteristics do you take from each? That’s the sort of problem better left in the hands of designers.
It seems like the natural next step is for users to select the emoji they’d like to mix together, but obviously there are challenges to making that work. Would an algorithm mash up what you wanted? Would Googlers need to draw tens of thousands of unique emoji you might want? And how would a keyboard UI manage all of these options in such a confined space? When I ask Daniel about the possibility of user-customizable emoji, she doesn’t rule it out. “Right now we wanted to create something that people understand how they use,” she says. “We want it to be natural, and then we can build out from there.”