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Embracing her true narrative and sheer talent, writer Zoe Mendelson has taken on everything from emojis to drones to nihilist Millennials. Her latest project—the extraordinary resource Pussypedia—focuses on the body.

In 2015, when I was the editor of PRINT magazine and Debbie Millman was its creative director, we raised the hackles of our corporate overlords when we decided to do an issue on text—a seemingly odd move for a magazine focused on visual culture. But the issue explored the fascinating intersection between the two, and in addition to pieces we had commissioned on the design of braille, text messaging, the history of Lorem ipsum and even a profile of the cue card writer at SNL, Debbie brought another idea to the table: an article on emojis—told on the left-hand page in text, and the opposite page in emoji—by a writer named Zoe Mendelson.

I had some editorial paranoia about how much interest and intrigue there could be to a dialogue about emojis … and I was proven delightfully wrong when this energetic, intensely talented writer filed the piece.

Mendelson hails from Chicago, and as this episode of Design Matters explores, early on a viral column she wrote for Fast Company led to her becoming “the emoji girl”—something I would feel guilty having perpetuated in the pages of PRINT had her work around the subject not been so good. Moreover, Mendelson says that today, she has made her peace with that chapter of her life—it culminated in a key project in Mexico City, where she now lives, and it amplified her voice to the world at large. Her writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Wired, Slate and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.

Throughout her life, she seems to have always rejected casually accepting the status quo. She abhors nihilism. She exudes passion. And that passion is no more apparent than in the project she has been focused on bringing to life for the past couple of years: Pussypedia. It began as an argument, evolved into a Kickstarter, and today is a “free, bilingual encyclopedia of the pussy, made for you to understand. Pussypedia aims to address the lack of quality, accessible information about our bodies on the internet. Pussypedia is a community-sourced project: the product of people all over the world working together. It is a platform meant to facilitate our ability to collectively generate high quality, accessible information.”

To explore all of Pussypedia, click here. (And to support or contribute to Pussypedia, click here.)

For the emoji curious, Mendelson’s PRINT article of yesteryear is below. And finally, for more from Mendelson, keep an eye on the curious site called Absinthe. We’re brewing up something exciting.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

“Tower of Babble”
Decoding the failed set of vector files we don’t want to admit we use every day.

The BBC recently called emoji the UK’s fastest-growing language. But is emoji a language? Language hinges on a convention of signification, a system of obeyed rules agreed upon by users. Symbols must have a fixed meaning. Emojis are so ambiguous as to render their meanings fluid and subjective.[1] Emoji is a broken set of symbols that, like an organism with a beneficial genetic mutation, has flourished in its failure.

When the original set hit iPhones, their most salient quality was their inexplicable randomness. Emojis intended to provide a collection of one-tap shortcuts for things we commonly text. But a floppy disk? A fried shrimp? How often could even the Japanese text about fried shrimp? The arbitrary nature of the set constituted such an extreme failure that the original task became irrelevant. Their genetic mutation was their arbitrariness. It propelled them from app to global phenomenon by endearing them to us and exploding their repertoire of uses.

Consider the praying hands: easily a high five or, if you please, a plausible vagina. The leaning pineapple could mean pineapple or lean. The face baring teeth and squinting eyes is either a grin or grimace. They can denote literally or connote metaphorically. They can play on homonyms (a bee could mean a bee or the verb be); metonymy (the pen for the “the written word”); or synecdoche (the Statue of Liberty can refer to New York). The problem (and the fun part) is that in a transaction of meaning the receiver must discern which.

This is their paradox: Their arbitrariness is both their greatest asset and shortcoming.

Emoji can do gold-medal representative acrobatics but at the end of the day, they fail at the point of transfer and thus perhaps at communication. But if so, what are we doing when we send each other emojis, if not communicating?

Even where emojis fail at semiotic nuance, they succeed as pragmatic communicative gestures. On the most basic level, no matter how specifically misinterpreted, their very presence serves to communicate a friendly, informal tone.

To grasp at objective clarity while “speaking” emoji, one must err on the side of extremely literal or extremely pictorial. Neither strategy is foolproof. And both require a bit of reverse engineering—a consideration of the emojis available before deciding what is possible to “say.” This counts as a feature similar to language. We often don’t have concepts for phenomena for which we lack words—for example, a German friend once asked me, “What do you call that feeling when you just got out of work and it’s a really nice day outside?”

Sure, you cannot say exactly what you want or whatever you want to say in emoji and assume another person will interpret it with reasonable ease and without losing any intended meaning. But, language, the language we rely on, isn’t entirely reliable, either.

1. Each emoji, surprisingly, does have an original, intended fixed meaning, and in a perhaps misguided, perhaps fascist effort, Unicode plans to tweak them to make their meanings more obvious and standardized.

To read the emoji version of this article, click here.

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