When Apple’s iOS10 update introduced predictive emoji in 2016, most users were charmed by its somewhat helpful—and often entertaining—image-for-word swap suggestions. But Sarah Gephart, a partner in Brooklyn’s MGMT. design firm, noticed something curious straight away. If a text included the term “CEO,” the iOS always suggested a white male emoji as a visual synonym.
Gephart wasn’t alone in her discovery. The website Mashable posted a story about the unfortunate bias in early 2017, and by the end of the year Apple had addressed the situation. Now predictive emoji offers icons of both genders as a swap for CEO.
That may have ended the PR crises for Apple, but for Gephart, a partner at MGMT. design, it inspired a new independent project. Towards the end of 2017, she began working on what she calls a “hypothetical hack”: a unisex glyph that iOS could suggest every time a user began typing a gendered pronoun. Instead of the binary-enforcing “he” or “she,” the machine could suggest a new symbol, designed by MGMT., that would represent neither, or both.
In an excellent blog post outlining the project, Gephart writes, “Biases in communication today are almost more damaging than they were in the past because gender-biased decisions are happening in hidden algorithms, programming, and machine learning.” The suggested emoji to replace CEO was an example of how the highly male-dominated tech world reinforces basic, outdated social assumptions in ways so subtle they make it into the design of our iPhone software. A brand new symbol, thought Gephart, would serve as a necessary corrective.
“As designers, we don’t write policy papers—we work with type and design things, and this is how we can try to effect change,” Cheng says in a recent interview. “The written word is part of the social fabric’s most basic communication, and if you chip away at even the smaller aspects of it, you can try to affect the broader picture.”
In other words, the mighty often manifests in the small. But is it possible for a single glyph to help change centuries of ingrained gender-based thinking? The pair make a convincing case.
In a talk at the 2018 Typographics conference held at Cooper Union in New York, MGMT. presented a new gender fluid character as part of a studio-wide research project. But first Gephart provided background on four historic glyphs and abbreviations to explain their thinking and design process. How and why have other characters throughout history originated and evolved?
She began with the ampersand. Despite its origins in first-century Roman times, the character didn’t have a name until the early 19th-century, when it was still considered the 27th and final letter of the alphabet. For school children reciting their ABCs, it would have been confusing to end with “X, Y, Z, and.” (And what?) Instead the students said, “and per se and”—meaning, “X, Y, Z, and (by itself) and.” Over time, “and per se and” ran together into the word we use today: ampersand.
Another example Gephart pointed to is the title “Ms.,” which was first proposed in 1901 as an alternate for Miss or Mrs., but didn’t catch on in popular usage until the 1970s when it became the title of Gloria Steinem’s influential feminist magazine. “Miss was a hint to your marital status, and was considered inferior to the social standing of a Mrs.,” Gephart tells us. “But marital status is really nobody’s business, as a part of your formal title in a business setting.” As common usage often slurred the pronunciation of both Miss and Mrs. together into Miz, anyway, it was not a difficult swap linguistically. Ideologically, on the other hand, it was easier for some people to adjust to than others.
Then there’s Prince’s unpronounceable hybrid male/female symbol, introduced in 1993 as a text character to stand in for his new name when he became the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Partly a sly name change on Prince’s part to get out of a contract with his record label Warner Brothers, the symbol also reinforced the performer’s image as someone unafraid to play with gender. It came to be known as the Love Symbol, though many called it the Ankh, a word that it slightly resembles. The symbol merges the signs for both male and female, plus an unrelated curly swoop.
The fourth and final influence on Gephart’s project was a curious glitch that happened last fall: an iOS error related to Apple’s cloud-based synchronization for predictive text. A bug on iPhones running iOS10 or 11 caused a typed “I” to be auto-replaced by a capital letter “A” and a mysterious unicode character of six stacked horizontal bars. The odd thing was that people accepted the strange character combination as “I.” “As the hundreds of millions of people who use iPhones experienced the glitch together, it began to enforce a new letter in the alphabet,” Gephart writes in her blog post. “Once we collectively decided we didn’t need ‘I,’ we adapted and moved on. Our machines dictated a new language for us, and we ran with it.”
Armed with this research, Gephart began a steady evolutionary process of working through the visual possibilities for a new gender-neutral symbol. “I like to think of this as benign and positive radicalism,” she says. “I wanted to make the he/she look nice but also be something easy to say. I also didn’t want to create a glyph from nothing so that it looked unfamiliar, like something from another planet.” Instead she blended recognizable letterforms, beginning with a combination of the words he and she. Gephart tried to preserve the flow of handwritten text as she also considered the glyph’s use in the gender fluid community. She wondered, “Was a static glyph adequate to represent frequent change?”
The result is a character that encompasses not only he and she, but also gender fluid pronoun options like Ne, Ve, E, Ze, or They, all of which can be seen abstractly represented in the final form.
Gephart finished off her exploration by imagining how the final iteration of this stage of the glyph in development might look when typeset in different fonts such as Helvetica, Bodoni, and Cooper Black. “We would like to get it added to Unicode, possibly, and from there into an iOS update,” Gephart says at the end of our conversation.
“Prince’s glyph took effort for users (they had to load it onto their computers from a floppy disk!) but [this symbol] could be simple,” Gephart adds. “It could work like Bitmoji, where you just add it to your keyboard if you choose to use it. What it represents is the hard part. When you answer one question, you open up three more. We’ve reached a good state with this project to pause and keep thinking. It’s really an open-ended question of how type represents gender and what that means.”