31/52: Digital Hieroglyphics

What’s old is new again.


Each week for a year, I’m designing a shirt and releasing it on my Threadless store. This is the design for week 31.


I remember learning about hieroglyphics in elementary school. Hieroglyphics, we were taught, were an early form of written communication in ancient Egypt, less advanced* than our modern writing system. We were given the assignment to make our own pictograms and write messages with them. (I’m pretty sure my daughter had the same assignment last year.) It was a fun experiment, but I remember thinking: Who would ever want to communicate with pictograms?

Well, turns out hieroglyphics are making a comeback. This time, they are called emoji.

I was a little late to the emoji train. I will freely admit that I thought they were a complete waste of time for a while, but I eventually came around. Emoji are fun and convey emotion and concepts well. I’m still pretty conservative with my emoji use — I rarely use more than one at at time — but I absolutely use them.

We as a society have embraced emoji. One of the biggest incentives for upgrading our smartphone operating system is to get new emoji. There are heated discussions about what emoji should be included in the next Unicode release. Micro.blog is experimenting with using emoji as tags — similar to how hashtags are used on Twitter — and it’s awesome. Communicating with pictograms isn’t primitive. It’s an effective way to get your message across.

Communicating with pictograms isn’t primitive. It’s an effective way to get your message across.

I wanted to make an emoji shirt and reference the similarity to hieroglyphics, so I built a pyramid** of emoji. It was tough to find an emoji font that I could use for a product like this one.*** Most charge extra for using their design in a commercial product. I finally found Google’s open source Noto family, which includes two emoji fonts. I didn’t like the faces in Noto, but the rest of the set was great and perfect for my pyramid. I decided to use the black and white version because I fell in love with the high contrast look. 

You can purchase “Digital Hieroglyphics” from my Threadless store.

* Of course, I later learned that Egyptian hieroglyphics were much more advanced than we were taught in elementary school. I’m pretty sure this is another example of Western cultural bias here. Modern society assumed pictograms were primitive and letterforms were superior. Turns out pictograms can be a powerful way to communicate, too.

** I was fascinated by pyramids, mostly because of David Macaulay’s book, Pyramids. For a period of time, I loved to read about all things ancient Egyptian.

*** Have you tried to use emoji in print? Let’s just say it’s much harder than you’d think it would be.

Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. He's currently in the middle of a project to design a new shirt a week for an entire year. Follow Bob on TwitterInstagram and Micro.Blog.