Typeface Review

Apple Color Emoji

Reviewed by Si Daniels on January 25, 2012

Apple Color Emoji represents a significant milestone in both the history of type technology and character standardization.

Of course color fonts are nothing new, with overprinting techniques in use from the earliest days of movable metal type. In digital typography layering has long been used to achieve multicolor results and color bitmap fonts have been around a while. However, Mac OS X Lion and the inclusion of the Apple Color Emoji font represent the first time a modern operating system has included both support and a showcase color font. Although the technology is basic, with color bitmaps included at two sizes in a proprietary “sbix” table, in years to come, as color fonts gain traction, we’ll look back to 2011 as the year it all began.

Of even more significance is the fact that the glyphs included in the font are Unicode encoded. In an effort initiated by Google and with significant help from Apple and Microsoft, 722 Emoji symbols were included in the recently published Unicode 6.0 standard, putting Emoji on par with the Latin alphabet and other writing systems encoded in Unicode. This means messages and documents containing Emoji are fully searchable and indexable, and Unicode Emoji fonts are included with Windows Phone 7.5 and the Windows 8 Developer Preview. The encoding effort was not without controversy, but effectively legitimizes nontraditional forms of written expression, and opens the door for the encoding of other symbols, including those found in popular symbol encoded fonts like Wingdings and Webdings.

As to the design itself, it’s more than adequate, the symbols are friendly and legible, but in reality the design isn’t all that important. Of all the fonts issued in 2011 this is the one we’ll all come back to in ten or twenty years as clearly being of the most historical significance.

Si Daniels is Lead Program Manager for fonts at Microsoft Corp.

Occupy Wall Street image from Intro to Narratives in Emoji 101.


  1. Christoph says:

    You can find a complete overview of all the Apple Color Emoji characters here. (Works only with Safari. Hover to see Unicode & HTML entity.)

  2. Jallan says:

    “However, Mac OS X Lion and the inclusion of the Apple Color Emoji font represent the first time a modern operating system has included both support and a showcase color font.”

    True only if you don’t count the Commodore Amiga as a “modern operating system”. Some company had created an operating system add-on which supported multicolored fonts and by the early ’90s this feature had been purchased by Commodore and was included in the operating system.

    I believe multi-colored fronts were only in bit-map format, although by that time the Amiga operating system supported resizable fonts as well as bitmapped fonts.

  3. Si says:

    Hi Jallan, you make a valid point. I recall both the Vic 20 and Commodore 64 allowed for multicolor bitmap fonts, but on a very coarse (4×8) grid, which made letters like “m” a little tricky. Maybe other systems had this capability too, Atari, TRS80, MSX, consoles? However I purposefully mentioned the inclusion of support and a “showcase font” so these types of things don’t count. Same goes for arcade machines. :-)

  4. Doug P says:

    Great run down Si. I wasn’t aware of the Emoji’s tech background. I do remember watching them start coming online on Twitter around the time people realized you could unlock them on early iPhones. I did a bit of quick analysis here if anyone is interested.

  5. Oscar says:

    @Si – I know that there were a number of games on the original Atari 8bit systems that used custom fonts to create a playfield in what was actually a text mode display. They used colors, but that information wasn’t part of the font: the colors were like an overlay modified on each screen scanline. I imagine the techniques were similar on the other systems of that era.

  6. Quora says:

    Is there a typeface for the 21st century as Helvetica was to the 20th?…

    A pretty good prediction knowing what we know so far. Though I doubt symbols will replace the Latin alphabet within the next 100 years, they certainly will be used more often than ever since the alphabet’s invention.

  7. Quora says:

    Are emoji and emoticon-like sets a typeface, a font or otherwise?…

    See also: https://typographica.org/typeface-reviews/apple-color-emoji/

  8. Brendon says:

    Are Apple’s Emoji images proprietary? Could I use an image as a logo or something?

  9. Brendon – like most fonts bundled with a system, I don’t think there is anything in the license agreement preventing you from using the fonts in commercial work.

  10. For Safari users, here’s another list of all the characters in Apple Color Emoji (via Daring Fireball).

  11. Paul D. says:

    I think the reason for pushing ahead with this should be mentioned. Emoji have been a standard feature of Japanese cell phones for many years and are incorporated into the non-Unicode text encodings used for Japanese text messaging in the past by the three major carriers. To be successful in their second-largest market, Apple couldn’t avoid including compatibility with the emoji used by other Japanese phones, and that meant either incorporating it into Unicode or using a kludgy workaround.

  12. alexr says:

    Apple supported color bitmap fonts from the introduction of the Macintosh II in 1987. They were obsoleted later, but several were in common availability back then.

  13. Apple seems to love emoji, the Japanese emoticon library, and they’ve played a considerable role in popularizing them outside Japan. I’d like to explore the history and development of emoji in Japan and their spread to the […]

  14. maggie says:

    Why aren’t there any black person emoji? Or is is Emojis? Is a single emoticon an emoja and, thus, the plural emoji? And there is an Eastern Indian emoja! What is up with this? So many questions.

  15. We rarely get to know the identities of designers who work on specific Apple products, but I just stumbled on the portfolio of Willem Van Lecker who was apparently responsible for at least a few hundred of the characters in Apple Color Emoji.

  16. Tehseen says:

    Hi Team,

    I really liked a video on youtube which is named as “Emoji Among Us: The Documentary”

    I just have a small question related to copyright of these emoji signs:

    Can I use these Apple color emoji signs in my video, similar to the way they have used?

    Or does Apple has any copyright on them? How did you get the license to use them?

    I would appreciate if you could please guide me in this regard as I am going to use these Apple color Emoji signs in my video project.


  17. Rachel Wallis says:

    I am upset with the emojis. You have created no sports or career emojis with women in them.

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