When I sent out a call for visual reviews of essays in the weeks before Christmas, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I asked contributors to submit four icons to summarize or analyze a favorite essay, and I suggested that they use emoji, the symbol language predicted by Vladimir Nabokov when he wished for “…a special typographical sign for a smile—some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question,” in a correspondence with the New York Times. The variety and ambition of the submissions I received went far beyond what I had hoped for.
"The Inheritance of Tools"by Scott Russel Sanders
-Dinty W. Moore
"Enough" by Marcia Aldrich
This ongoing project was inspired by Kyle Tezak’s Four Icon Challenge, an assignment I’ve repurposed for my freshman composition classroom in prompting students to earn their sea-legs in textual analysis. My students use everything from emoji to icons from The Noun Project, a free library of high quality icons used by Tezak. With so many icons scattered across my screens, I’ve been thinking more about visual literacy. I’ve been wondering about why so many of the writers I correspond with supplement their communications with emoji when it is available. I’ve been thinking about the icon as a digital hieroglyph. About emoji as an artful restraint to communication that encourages associative thinking. I may have been getting a bit too into the Japanese character language in the wake of emoji articles everywhere from Mashable to The New Yorker and The New Republic.
Symbols can be problematic, and emoji doesn't have a great rep. My boyfriend often reminds me that emojis seem trite, lazy, just filler for what words do best. So he'll never understand why texting three yellow cats with hearts for eyes could be better than typing "I'm thinking of you." MIT Researcher Kate Crawford calls emoji “a taxonomy of feeling in a grid menu of ideograms.” Alice Robb interviewed linguists who, in the vein of the iconoclasts, suggest that using emojis disconnects us from experiencing emotions when we express them only in shorthand. The essentializing nature of the limited emoji language and what it signals about normative culture seems maybe best highlighted by the emoji poetry tumbler and projects like emojidick, yes—a translation of Moby Dick in only emoji. (Hint, not at all like this:
Still, it seems digital icons keep breaking new ground. The Noun Project expands the options within our digital, visual vocabulary almost daily, and it’s been nearly three months now since the iOS6 introduced hundreds of additional emojis to the picture language. But at the same time that icon communication seems freer, isn’t the expanded language simply closer to a true alphabet?
Balloon Pop Outlaw Black by Patricia Lockwood
Balloon: Moroto Olivera
My favorite emoji user is a friend and architect (and designer of the banner at the beginning of this post), whose poetic icon sequences consider the progression of each individual symbol, as well as the nuance of their sequential combination in terms of color. This friend’s communications often make me notice how the restrictive qualities of symbols can be casually subverted in unexpected ways.
On his website, Tezak writes that “a good designer is equal parts strategist, storyteller, artist, and nerd.” I might pose here that the essayist, too, is composed of similar ingredients. To me it seems that icons, like new slang, work best and maybe only in the context and representation of many other words. So the four icon essay review seems a fitting form for the modern symbol to experiment inside. Perhaps our icons function less like hieroglyphs and more like poetry, or more like truth-telling--all forms that use limitations as an opportunity for making art.