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Lilian Stolk is digitalising the language of flowers


Words by Georgie Sinclair

Illustrations by Lilian Stolk

A sprouting plant. Tulip Flower. Or a rosebud. Once a source of mindless entertainment, emoji pictograms have become one of the most pervasive communication tools of our time. So much so that they are widely considered to be an instrumental force in the evolution of language. Such developments have inspired graphic artist and researcher Lilian Stolk to pitch in with her own alternativesan effort to broaden and diversify the pool of this universal dialect. We caught up her to talk about her research into emoji and her contribution to flora imagery of the digital realm.

How did you first become interested in emoji?

It was when Apple updated emoji with different skin tones. I had an old iPhone so I couldn’t do the update. My boyfriend was showing me the new skin tones that had been added. He sent me a Father Christmas with dark skin, but I just received a Father Christmas with a strange visual behind it. I copied it and sent it back, and he received a square with the skin tone of Father Christmas he had sent me. That was when I realised that the emoji was just a code, a rule system that converts information into an image. So I started asking myself questions: where does this code come from? Why do we have these images available on our phone? Why do we like them so much?

Where does the code come from?

I discovered it comes from an American company called Unicode. This is the company that owns emoji, or at least is controlling its output. In fact, Unicode is digitalising our whole language. It makes codes for every character and image and ensures that the right emoji appear on every device, handset, in every country. They are very powerful.

How will this affect us as users of emoji?

Since our phones have become more advanced, emoji are beginning to look more lifelike. This makes it much more difficult to be socially inclusive. Take the dancer emoji. Apple created a flamenco dancer. She has brown hair and a red dress. It’s very specific to Spanish culture. But there aren’t options for traditional dances from other cultures. Companies like Unicode are making these decisions and in turn, are shaping how we communicate. They have a rule when they vote on new emoji that it needs to be popular, but I don’t think that’s a good criterion. It excludes people.

Is that why you decided to develop apps yourself?

I started thinking about it when I visited Japan to interview the developer of emoji. I found out that Japanese people are actually no longer using emoji, they are using Line. Line has a lot of sticker sets you can add to your keyboard which offers many more choices. Japanese people don’t want to say “Good morning” to each other the same way every day. They want options, to be more personal. That inspired me to create the Talking Hands app, and shortly after that, I developed the Sticky Flower app because there are so few flower options available. The app enables you to send a digitalised bouquet of flowers via a text message.

What message are you personally sending with your bouquets?

I think it’s special to send a message with a bouquet of flowers in it. Even if it’s digital, it’s like a gift. These apps will never replace the gift of a real bouquet of flowers. If you send an emoji love heart to someone, it doesn’t stop you from saying “I love you” in real life. If anything it reinforces it. It facilitates more positive interactions. I come from a ‘flowery’ background. One of the flowers I use, the floriosa, is one my grandfather imported to the Netherlands in the 1970s. He was one of the first farmers to grow this flower. And my aunt has a flower shop in Delft. So for me it’s also quite personal. 

“These apps will never replace the gift of a real bouquet of flowers. If anything it reinforces it. It facilitates more positive interactions”

What else have you found in your research so far?

Because emoji is developed in Japan there are a lot of Japanese symbols in our keyboards. From the flower options alone there is cherry blossom, which they use to celebrate death; Bamboo; and the Japanese Christmas tree, which they put outside their front door. You can’t delete emoji symbols. Once the symbol has been coded it stays on our keyboards forever. But since Unicode took over in 2010, a lot of Western symbols have been added. And every country uses emoji in their own way. Plant and flower emoji are used much more frequently in Arabic countries, for instance.

Which is your favourite emoji?

Probably the four-leafed clover. Because it has an important underlying message, luck!

Say it with flowers

The untold story of emoji