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How to Emoji Like a Pro

Melanie Pinola
Melanie Pinola / January 5, 2017

You've seen them on Slack, on Twitter, in your emails, and in your text messages. You might have even seen them beyond the digital screen, on billboards or in magazine ads. Emoji are everywhere, enhancing our messages in colorful, light-hearted ways.

Over 1,800 of these tiny pictograms exist to help you express a reaction or sentiment, with emoji running the gamut from 😂 ("Smiling with Tears of Joy," the 2015 Oxford Dictionary "Word" of the Day) to 🍻 ("Clinking Beer Mugs") and 💩 (a "Pile of Poo," which looks oddly happy).

Even Herman Melville's Moby Dick has been translated entirely into emoji, and there are more than a few emoji-only social networks, such as Emojicate, dedicated solely to those well-versed in speaking and deciphering emoji messages. It's like hieroglyphics for the modern screen age. Heck, you can order from Domino's with a pizza emoji tweet and, just recently, Google rolled out a new feature where you can search–presumably faster–using just emoji.

6 billion emoji are sent every day around the world. It's a cultural phenomenon, as well as a nuanced way to say more than you could with words alone–a visual, fun language of its own.

But emoji can be cryptic, too. What does 👁‍🗨 ("Eye in Speech Bubble") mean? And what's the difference between 😦, 😧, and 😯*? Here, you'll find a guide to "speaking" emoji for both work and play.

A Brief History of Emoji

The first emoji set
The original set of 176 emoji, donated by NTT DoCoMo to the Museum of Modern Art

The word "emoji" translates literally to "picture character" in Japanese. In 1999, Japanese mobile provider NTT DoCoMo released the first set of these pictographs for cell phones. Cell phones were primitive at that time, only capable of showing or receiving standard characters–definitely not the shaded or animated emoji we know today. But NTT DoCoMo's Shigetaka Kurita found a way to represent pictures using a grid that was just 12 pixels wide by 12 pixels long, at first rendered in just black and white.

Original smiley emoji
The original smiley emoji

NNT DoCoMo introduced emoji not just to enable users to text each other smiley faces or hearts, but to communicate with their customers–with a sun emoji, for example, to display the weather forecast–and to set the company apart from the competition. The set of 176 emoji characters were an instant hit and soon copied by other mobile operators in Japan.

It took nearly a decade, however, for emoji to start taking the rest of the world by storm. By late 2010, hundreds of emoji had been incorporated into Unicode, a universal standard for characters, and Apple put an emoji keyboard in iOS 5 for the iPhone in 2011. (Apple hid an emoji keyboard with its first iPhone in 2007, but it was meant only for the Japanese market, where emoji were a riveting sell point for cell phone customers.) Google followed suit with its Android system, and the rest, they say, is history.

How to Write Emoji Characters Anywhere

Emoji keyboards are built into all modern operating systems, so you can add emoji to any document where you could add any other text or character. Can I Emoji shows the current status of emoji support across Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android in case you're wondering which browsers support emoji—and whether your friend will see the latest emoji on their device.

To get to the emoji keyboard on your computer:

  • Mac: Press Command + CTRL + Spacebar and either search for or browse through the available emoji
  • Windows 8 and 10: Click or tap the touch keyboard icon in the lower-right corner of your taskbar and click on the smiley face. Scroll through or click on the categories at the bottom to select your emoji

On your mobile device and most apps, such as Slack and Facebook, just look for the universal smiley face or, if you have more than just one language and emoji keyboard enabled, the globe icon to get to the emoji keyboard. If you can't find the emoji keyboard in iOS or Android, check your keyboard options under your device's settings.

For Slack in particular, you can add multiple emoji at once by holding down the Shift key:

Slack emoji shortcut
You can add up to 20 different emoji as a reaction in Slack

Note that emoji images won't look the same on all platforms, because the graphics are specific to the fonts on the operating system. So the grinning face in your browser will look toothier on Android and quite flushed and detailed in Samsung apps.

grinning face emoji
Grinning face emoji on different platforms, via Unicode.org

How We Use Emoji at Zapier

What was once a feature mobile companies mainly saw as a way to sell more phones has now become common in the workplace.

Here at Zapier, we use emoji in Slack with wanton abandon.

Emoji discussion in the Zapier Slack room
Emoji discussion in the Zapier Slack room

Our most frequently-used emoji are for reacting to messages with:

  • Agreement or approval for an idea (➕, 👍)
  • Kudos (👏, 🙌)
  • Acknowledgment: to say "got it" in response to task requests or information (👌, 👍 - yes, again)
  • Joking/smarm: virtually joshing each other (😛, 😜)
Common Emoji
Popular emoji

But sometimes we also use them creatively:

cosmetic emoji
It's a wonder we get anything done around here

Being a completely remote team, emoji are useful because they add more character and fun than text-only messages can convey. They also help avoid cluttering our streams of conversations when all you want to do is say "thanks," "good job," or "this is an excellent idea."

The Famous Party Parrot (and Other Dancing Emoji)

We use emoji quite often for celebrations too. In addition to things like offering up a slice of 🍰 or a 🎉 for things like birthdays and anniversaries, we celebrate just about anything worth doing a dance for—such as new releases or company milestones—with moving rainbows, dancing bananas, dancing pizzas, party wizards, and, of course, the party parrot.

When I first joined Zapier, I was puzzled by this dancing parrot that kept popping up in Slack. I never bothered to ask anyone about it, simply thinking that this group of people really likes dancing parrot heads.

While doing research for this post, though, I came across Cult of the Party Parrot, the "party or die" site dedicated to the party parrot emoji. John Hobbs, a software developer who was part of a group that started using the parrot GIF a lot in Midwest Dev Chat, told me that he and his teammates one day just started creating a bunch of variations on the parrot, making tools to draw with the parrot, and converting images to be drawn with the parrot. And from there, the GIFs spread, as all good emoji should:

Shortly after that I was in the slack of a large company I contracted for a while in California. The parrot variations I had made showed up there and I was surprised. Evidently people had started sharing zips of the parrot gifs. I registered the domain and set it up as a central collection of party parrot gifs so that people could find them all in one place.

There's a sad parrot , a blonde sassy parrot , a conga parrot , a fast parrot , and many more for just about any occasion.

Custom Emoji

Custom emoji
App mascot emoji

Emoji are great, but custom emoji are excellent. We love the ability to use custom emoji in Slack. Members of the team have added Mario- and Pokémon-themed emoji, emoji for apps and tech brands, and emoji of team members. (Hey, this is Curlin: .) At current count, we have 525 custom emoji created in Slack. Now, custom emoji aren't real Unicode emoji—they're just tiny pictures or GIFs that Slack lets you treat like any other emoji.

Add some more spice to your Slack channels with custom emoji by going to http://[your Slack domain]/customize/emoji and uploading your GIF or image. You can also find a ton of custom Slack emoji at Slackmojis.com.

If you want to create custom emoji for other apps, such as when sending messages in a chat app from your phone, there are a few popular apps that can help. CNET recommends imoji, which is free for both iOS and Android. With it, you can turn any photo into an emoji you can share on messaging services and social networks such as iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and Twitter.

Dos and Don'ts of Using Emoji for Work

iMessage emoji
This is how my kid and her friends chat with each other on their iPads

There's technically no wrong way to do a party parrot, but there are smart ways to use emoji with your team and even with your customers.

Do: Flag Messages with Emoji

Our friends at Slack themselves have a great post on how they use emoji at Slack, including creating polls using :one:, :two:, and so on for the voting options (these are Slack-specific emoji) and using 👀 to volunteer to help out with a request.

One of the coolest tips in that post is using custom emoji to tag messages so they're easily searchable and scannable:

We’ve started a habit of associating certain emoji with teams. For example, if someone posts an idea in the feature request channel, and someone on the platform development team thinks it’s a good idea, they’ll add a custom platypus emoji reaction to the message. Anyone on team platform can search for has :platypus:, find every message tagged with it, and quickly generate a list of feature ideas. Explaining why platform picked the platypus is a story for another day.

We have over two dozen triage channels at Slack with names such as #triage-ios and #triage-sales, where teams handle thorny problems. To make it easy to scroll through and spot major problems, we use emoji to precede messages. A :red_circle:, for instance, denotes an urgent problem, while :blue_circle: indicates a non-urgent question. A :white_circle: means someone is seeking some feedback. We even wrote a custom bot to remind us about requests that are still unanswered hours later.

Do: Add Emoji to Your Tweets, Emails, and Other Messages

Emoji are a quick and expressive way to make your marketing messages and other types of communication stand out. According to Experian, brands that used symbols or emoji in their subject lines saw 56% higher open rates. They help messages stand out from the crowd (until, that is, everyone is using emoji everywhere.)

Additionally, using emoji in subject lines and Tweets help you maximize space and character limits.

Don't just go sprinkling emoji just for the sake of it, though. As Campaign Monitor points out, you'll want to make sure the emoji you use is relevant and complements your message. You'll also want to test to make sure the emoji display properly, since some email clients and mobile devices won't render them. (Here's Campaign Monitor's chart on symbol rendering in emails.)

Do: Combine Emoji for Additional Meanings

Each emoji on its own has its particular meaning, but when combined with other emoji, you can add to the meaning or change it completely. For example, there's no emoji for crying baby, but 😢 + 👶 can get the point across. Buzzfeed offers emoji combos you can use as comebacks, such as 🚫 😎 💡 ("Not the sharpest bulb") and 😰 ❄️ ("That was cold") and more creative emoji masterpieces.

Mix and match to see what you can come up with.

Don't: Use the Wrong Emoji

Misunderstood emoji
You keep using that emoji. I do not think it means what you think it means

Like any other element of communication, emoji can be misinterpreted or misunderstood.

We recently had a discussion about this emoji, for example: 🙆. According to Unicode's Emoji list, this stands for "Person Gesturing OK," and the keywords for it would be "gesture," "hand," or "OK." One of our team members, however, says it looks more like an "Oh no!" than "OK." Personally, I thought this was an emoji for doing yoga, but it just goes to show that we should be careful when interpreting these images ourselves.

Other commonly misinterpreted emoji include:

  • 😲 - Astonished Face. It looks like this would be representative of a dead person, but it actually means "shocked" or "surprised"
  • 😥 - Disappointed But Relieved Face. Does this face look relieved? No, and that's probably why it's misunderstood. Still, the emoji means "whew" (Faces are hard to read, folks)
  • 💁 - Person Tipping Hand. It might look like a sassy or sarcastic character, but it's meant to depict someone who works at an information desk and asking how she can help. That said, some of the sassiest people I've known work in customer support.
  • 🙀 - Weary Cat Face. Although it looks like the feline version of 😱, this cat is merely weary, not screaming in fear
  • 💅 - Nail Polish. The descriptions for this one are pretty straightforward: Nail polish, cosmetics, manicure. Yet some use it to signify being sassy, like 😏, while others use it to say something like "haters gonna hate" or "I don't care."
  • 💩 - Pile of Poo. This is the most versatile emoji, according to Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge. You can use it in any context, since it's smiling and also poop. Some use it to mean "good luck," since the words for "poo" and "luck" are similar in Japanese. Others use it to mean, well, garbage.

At least no one misinterprets


TL;DR 🙏 👀 📃. 😊 👋


*The "Eye in Speech Bubble" emoji represents an anti-bullying campaign called I Am A Witness. The first emoji is "frowning face with open mouth," the second "anguished face," and the last "hushed face."

Emoji keyboard photo by Disk Cactus on Amazon

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