Designing a Bagel Emoji
The month is January. It’s almost your last semester of graduate school. You’re a graphic design MFA student deep in the throes of what may go down as the most excruciatingly heady days of your life. It’s cold. It’s a Rhode Island winter. You’re tired of wondering if reading more Adorno essays will give you the superpowers necessary to complete your thesis. It snows 10 inches again. You watch some TV.
While Wintersession (which is one word, for whatever reason) at RISD is usually a detour of sorts, this year feels different. This time, I’ve been registered for the mandatory Thesis Year Graphic Design workshop with Google Design’s Rob Giampietro, a longtime external critic in RISD GD whose robust knowledge of design theory, culture, and art history is both daunting and awe-inspiring. So of course, I’m expecting another mind-bending assignment I can barely wrap my head around. Lost in my own world of existential crises and unanswerable thesis “research questions,” I’m offered the most unexpected of reprieves.
The assignment: Design and propose an emoji to the Unicode Consortium—the quiet gatekeepers to the world of official emojis.
At first I assumed it was a conceit—an invitation to get weird and experimental under the guise of a commercial design prompt. In RISD’s Graphic Design department, “commercial,” “design,” and “prompt” are three words you never really hear together. Yet that’s exactly what we got. It’s funny that nearly three years into this program, something ostensibly straightforward now feels uncomfortable.
After a bit of initial research, I rush through iterations and concepts: Could I augment the current emoji set with contextual bookending emojis that go on both sides of a sentence—something like air quotes for irony? Could I redesign a set of emojis that only uses compacted images of words, for people who want to “opt-out” of emojis and only want to know the emoji’s intended meaning or official title? Could I tackle the problem of cross-platform emoji misconstrual, when different phones’ operating systems generate different images for emojis?
Then came the bagel.
My interest in bagels is no secret to those who know me. As a Jewish American, I have found that bagels occupy a good deal of space in my life. Whether it was waiting in long lines every Sunday with my father to get a big bag of them to bring home, or waiting in long lines with my friends on a recent trip to Montreal, I’ll go the extra mile for the right bagel. With me, almost nothing beats a perfect bagel and lox sandwich. Some would call my relationship with bagels a calling. Still, never did I imagine that my design practice and my epicurean passions would ever cross paths. But, seriously, how could there not be an emoji for bagels!?
Easily the dumbest of the four ideas I bring to the table during our first crit, on a wall full of mine and others’ overly complicated self-initiated experiments, the bagel emoji sketch is a quick crowd-pleaser among classmates and instructor alike. Though I truly do think it’s one of the silliest things I’ve presented to a classroom full of talented, smart designers with big ideas, I couldn’t get over it: How is there no bagel emoji!? I’m left with no other choice. Schmear I come.
Abandoning the sort of knotty trappings I generally inhabit as I work for far … creamier territory, I begin to research how to propose an emoji to the Unicode Consortium. How does the Unicode Consortium choose emojis? What do they look for? How do you format a proposal? I’m soon made aware that no emoji should be too culturally idiosyncratic, that universality is important, that an outstanding demand must be made clear. This will be an interesting challenge. But then again, there’s a paella emoji. Anything is possible.
As I work through the proposal, oddly, I begin to find resonance with my thesis. Currently titled “Frame — Work,” my thesis deals in reclaiming and deconstructing the designed frames, contexts, and platforms that quietly work to mediate and dictate our lives. Infiltration, co-option, and substitution are just a few terms that come up a lot in my work. By designing an emoji, could I be performing the exact type of reclamation I describe in my thesis writing? Perhaps the best way to illuminate how the frames work is to move directly through them. Instead of operating from the fringes, commenting as artists, could we make real change as counter-agents within the system?
The more research I find on emojis, the more I realize the power these silly marks have over our lives. When we communicate through a language designed and decided by an organization—for all intents and purposes, the first ever corporate language—we begin to communicate with one another on somebody else’s very specific terms. We share ideas and concepts that somebody else has, quite literally, predetermined for us.
With Unicode, however, there’s an opportunity for new ideas to make their way in. And by somehow feeding your own ideas, your own identity, your own interests into that pool of imagery, you can actually, in some small way, affect the culture that’s taking part in it. You can insert yourself into the vernacular. You can be the bagels you want to see in the world.
And though the bagel is fairly universal these days, I still feel that it stands as a cultural signifier of sorts and I am genuinely warmed by the bagel’s cross-cultural popularity. In many cosmopolitan epicenters, Jewish culture has become mainstream, even trendy. It feels validating to see something you love so intimately, for such specific cultural reasons, become such a popular food item. With the rise of Russ and Daughters Café and Black Seed Bagel, among other high-end Jewish food purveyors, the resurgence and gourmet-ification of the bagel feels like some sort of personal triumph. And I truly believe food is a secret weapon in the world of cultural unification. A good meal can break down all sorts of cultural barriers. If this emoji took, I was about to shatter one.
So I begin to write the proposal and design the emoji. Bagels are circle-shaped baked goods, which many cultures have a version of. Bagels represent a very specific type of meal, neither a mere pastry nor a breakfast-specific item, but something in the middle. They are casual. They are comforting. Words fail. An emoji is born.