Also known as smileys or emoticons, emojis are used around the world and have changed the way we communicate with one another—but they didn’t always represent everyone.

Emojis originated in Japan in the late 1990s and were introduced to iPhones in 2008, only a year after the iPhone was launched. Their primary function is to replicate in electronic messages the emotional cues that typically exist in person-to-person communication. Initially, emojis of people featured one skin tone. Even though the emojis were supposed to be for everyone’s use, the default design looked Caucasian. Fortunately, an ordinary conversation between a mother and her daughter helped change that forever.

Where did the idea of more diverse and inclusive emoji choices come from? Meet Katrina and Katy Parrott, co-inventors of iDiversicons®.

Photograph of two women, Katy and Katrina Parrott

Katy and Katrina Parrott

Courtesy of Katrina Parrott

The idea for Parrott’s copy-and-paste iOS app with a diverse set of emojis came after a conversation Parrott had with her daughter, Katy, in 2013. “She came home one weekend from school, and she says, ‘wouldn’t it be nice to send an emoji to my friends that look like me?'" It was then when Parrott realized that emojis were a staple for the younger generation when texting, and she could easily solve the issue of the lack of representation her daughter and others experienced by creating a diverse set of emojis.

iDiversicons® introductory video with Katy Parrott and Patrick Gathron.

Wouldn’t it be nice to send an emoji to my friends that look like me? Katy Parrott, 2013

Having worked in the aerospace industry for over twenty years in procurement, subcontract management, and logistics at companies like NASA, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Rockwell International, and the United Space Alliance, Parrott had not worked on a project like iDiversicons® before. Parrott assembled a small team, including a senior software engineer, illustrator, copyright specialist, and videographer to design the emojis and secure copyrights. As early as July 2013 she registered her emojis with the US Copyright Office and applied for design and utility patents. On October 11, 2013, over 300 emojis were made available through her iDiversicon® app in the Apple App Store. In December 2014, iDiversicons® mobile app evolved into an iOS keyboard and over 600 additional emoji were added.

An image featuring 15 emojis of people's heads and hands.

Examples of the first set of iDiversicons® emojis released in October 2013.

Gift of iDiversicons®, the world's First Diverse Emoji - Katrina and Katy Parrott, © iDiversicons®

Parrott was determined to solve this lack of representation and also saw an opportunity to monetize her concept. “What I learned in business is if you come up with an idea that nobody else has and you’re the first on the scene, it gives you a real good opportunity to be successful,” Parrott said in an interview with the Washington Post. But Parrott did more than be the first to create these diverse emojis. On top of introducing five different skin tones, Parrott incorporated more gender-neutral, biracial, couple-oriented, and family-oriented emoji options. Parrott even incorporated a variety of hairstyles—such as space buns, box braids, and locs—and different textures of black hair into her emojis. Parrott also included diverse handshakes and gestures such as the fist bump and high-fives, all of which came in pairings of different skin tones, an obvious nod towards unity. There is also a “Disability Pride Emoji” created with the late disability rights leader Greg Smith.

Today, our life’s mission is to help as many different people as possible truly express themselves, creating a sense of inclusiveness for all. idiversicons.com
Emoji of four people.

Brothers and Sisters

Gift of iDiversicons®, the world's First Diverse Emoji - Katrina and Katy Parrott, © iDiversicons®
emoji with two hands.

DAP

Gift of iDiversicons®, the world's First Diverse Emoji - Katrina and Katy Parrott, © iDiversicons®
emoji of a woman

Woman

Gift of iDiversicons®, the world's First Diverse Emoji - Katrina and Katy Parrott, © iDiversicons®
emoji of a man

Man

Gift of iDiversicons®, the world's First Diverse Emoji - Katrina and Katy Parrott, © iDiversicons®
emoji of a woman in a wheelchair

Woman in wheelchair

Gift of iDiversicons®, the world's First Diverse Emoji - Katrina and Katy Parrott, © iDiversicons®
emoji of a woman

Woman

Gift of iDiversicons®, the world's First Diverse Emoji - Katrina and Katy Parrott, © iDiversicons®

In May 2014, Parrott went to Silicon Valley and gave a presentation about iDiversicons® to the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit corporation that sets the digital standards for consistent encoding of the world writings systems (fonts).The Unicode Consortium invited her to present her product to big tech companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Afterwards, a senior software engineer with Apple invited Parrott to present her idea to a senior staff member at Apple Headquarters. Parrott believed this would be her big break, her chance to partner with Apple and have her emojis programmed onto the iPhone.

After a third meeting with Unicode members, Parrott was contacted with unexpected news. According to the Washington Post, “Unicode Consortium President Mark Davis later emailed Parrott making it clear how essential she was to the team in developing the idea for diverse emoji, however that appears to be where Parrott’s contributions ended. In October, Apple contacted her to let her know that it would be using ‘its own team of human interface designers’ to ‘handle all aspects of the emoji design’.”

Parrott was disappointed, but her contributions to Apple, Unicode, and other tech giants did not end in October 2014. Her ultimate goal was to influence the representation of diverse emoji and to make that happen she remained engaged.

Five fist emojis with different skin color

iDiversicons® 5-skin tone pallet with the fist emoji

Courtesy of Katrina Parrott, © iDiversicons®

In 2015, Apple released their own racially diverse emojis on iOS 8.3, approximately two years after the invention of Parrott’s iDiversicons®. This prompted Parrott’s company, Cub Club Investment (CCI), the developer of iDiversicons®, to file a lawsuit in 2020. CCI believed that iDiversicons’® intellectual property had been taken by Apple. After some debate about copyright standards and whether this case qualified as copyright infringement, Judge Vince Chhabria of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed the case. However, this court ruling did not detract from the positive impact that Parrott’s app has had on her community.

American University’s Black community highlighted me as one of AU changemakers, creating meaningful impact in our ever-changing world. They shared that iDiversicons® continues to touch lives by taking a step back to look through an all-inclusive lens and ensure everyone’s identity is captured.

Katrina Parrott
February 19, 2019 interview with Women Leadership Magazine USA, on the feedback she has received from the community at American University, her alma mater.

Despite the challenges she encountered and the dismissed lawsuit, Parrott’s product has been a model. Parrott notes that, “Apple and Unicode decided on five skin tones like iDiversicons’® five skin tones.” In addition, Parrott shares that although she wasn’t credited for her ideas, company leaders felt her feedback was “so valuable on diversity” that they continued to request it. More importantly, however, Parrott has focused on advancing the iDiversicons® suite. In 2020, Parrott and her team released diverse handwashing emojis in her five-skin tone range, a face mask, and the Coronavirus cell to promote safety guidelines amidst the Coronavirus pandemic. These new Coronavirus emojis, along with 900+ other emoji options, are still available on both Apple and Android devices.

Coronavirus, face mask, and handwashing emojis

Coronavirus, face mask, and handwashing emojis

Gift of iDiversicons®, the world's First Diverse Emoji - Katrina and Katy Parrott, © iDiversicons®

484 of Parrott’s emojis and 21 of her unique animated GIF files were acquired as part of NMAAHC’s study collection in 2022.

As a program manager at NASA, with an accomplished career in the aerospace industry, Parrott’s experience in managing and negotiating multimillion dollar programs catalyzed her decision to start iDiversicons® and design the first set of representative emojis. Trailblazing this innovation, Parrott has served as an example for how design can galvanize diversity and inclusion efforts through visual strategy. Parrott’s story also exemplifies the systematic erasure of the groundwork of Black innovators. In Parrott’s case, despite her battle against infringement, her idea for diverse emojis has been adopted as an industry standard. Her work is important to NMAAHC’s collecting efforts in the areas of design, technology, and entrepreneurship by Black pioneers.

Written by Marissa Anne Coleman, 2022 Intern
Published on September 28, 2022

A special thank you to Katrina Parrott for providing additional information and for reviewing this story for accuracy.

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