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Empty toilet paper rolls and a ‘closed’ sign: Emoji get redesigned for COVID-19

The visual tropes of today will become the history of tomorrow.

Empty toilet paper rolls and a ‘closed’ sign: Emoji get redesigned for COVID-19
[Images: Ji Lee]

Many of us are working from home, wrangling kids while managing our day jobs, and just trying to keep our wits about us. That means we turn on Netflix at 10 p.m., pop a pinot, and tune out. But once designer Ji Lee is done juggling his day, he does the unthinkable: Even more work to, in his words, “stay productive and sane.”

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His latest sanity project was to develop a series of emoji for COVID-19. He created 12 emoji—including many inspired by those you know and love—for pandemic times: the prayer hands get bubbles to signal hand washing, the house now has a single person in isolation staring out the window, the earth gets a large pause symbol on top, and of course, the toilet paper roll is now empty.

[Image: Ji Lee]
“I believe what the world is going through right now is a big moment in history which will have a profound impact on the way people behave, communicate, and perceive their reality,” Lee says. “With this in mind, I thought we needed a new set of emojis which reflected our new reality.”

The work is funny in some instances, though also quietly sad. “Emoji is a humorous medium. But these emojis represent very serious global topics,” says Lee, while excusing the toilet paper roll as an obvious joke. “Humor is a very important part of our life, which helps us go through difficult times. If this somehow makes people smile for a moment during a tough day, I would be happy.”

[Image: Ji Lee]
In his sanity time, Lee has also been working on other projects that augment visual tropes to capture the current moment. There’s an ad for “antiviral antiracist” face masks that simply cover one’s entire face—a clever jab at the prejudice that people of Asian descent have been facing during the pandemic. There’s also a remix of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks with all the people removed and the diner’s lights shut off, which looks eerily like thousands of restaurants nationwide closed because of the virus.

[Image: Ji Lee]
When we look back at the COVID-19 pandemic years from now, we probably won’t remember all the CNN news reports, but rather the visuals people have shared on social media: the charts, the N95 respirators, the freshly baked bread, the empty shelves and city streets, the private stockpiles of toilet paper, and plenty of coronavirus-repurposed emoji.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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