Microsoft open sources its 3D emoji to let creators remix and customize them

Microsoft is open sourcing more than 1,500 of its 3D emoji, making them free for creators to remix and build upon. Almost all of Microsoft’s 1,538 emoji library will be available on Figma and GitHub starting today in a move that Microsoft hopes will encourage more creativity and inclusivity in the emoji space.

While Microsoft released its emoji in Windows 11 last year and 3D versions in Microsoft Teams in February, the company hadn’t originally planned to open source its work. “Initially we were focused on building the body of work,” says Jon Friedman, Microsoft’s CVP of design and research, in an interview with The Verge. “The idea kinda just started popping around, and it aligned with our belief and perspective that the more open source we are internally and externally, the more product excellence we can build, and the more relevant we can be for all of humanity.”

Microsoft spent a lot of time on inclusive design and the varied needs of emoji that span across different people, religions, and countries. The result was more than 1,500 emoji that include custom skin tones, with bright and saturated colors and a focus on fun in the workplace. Even Clippy was introduced as a replacement for the paper clip emoji, but that’s one of a few that won’t be open sourced simply because of legal requirements around Microsoft’s trademarks.

Microsoft now wants creators to explore new ways to build upon its emoji. “Internally at Microsoft we’re one design community that can only do so much or see so much,” explains Friedman. “We have a desire to engage the community and help us see and do more that’s globally relevant, that reaches people in unique ways.”

Creators will be able to take most of Microsoft’s bright and colorful 3D emoji and remix them into stickers, use them in content, or create unique sets of emoji. “I think we’ll see things that are really unique and specific, and then I think we’ll see ideas that are really broadly applicable,” says Friedman. “When we did our app icons a bunch of years back, there were people who did Marvel versions of our app icons. It was awesome. It was just this great creative expression.”

We’ll likely see creators build on Microsoft’s emoji to bring holiday themes or even more unique skin tones and more creativity once the community starts to experiment. It’s easy to imagine Halloween sets of emoji or emoji that are unique to certain regions or religions.

Part of the reason Microsoft says it’s open sourcing its emoji right now is the changing state of work. Remote and hybrid work has forced businesses and employees to work differently, and how you express yourself through text has become even more important.

Reflecting on the pandemic, Friedman says the pre-pandemic idea of professionalism in the workplace has changed with hybrid work and even emoji. “One of the things I saw start to happen in Teams is people using heart reactions who are very serious, important executive people at Microsoft who were suddenly loving things, loving comments, or using emojis in sentences,” recounts Friedman.

“Facial expression or body language was sort of disconnected from our communications… so we started to have these other rich conversations that were almost as engaged as the video conversations we were having,” says Friedman. “Emojis started to play a bigger and bigger role… and that enabled people to feel a little more comfortable with authentically reacting to things emotively.”

Microsoft’s design teams are now looking forward to seeing how the community of creators builds on its library of emoji. The original roots of emoji evolved from Japan and its traditions of picture-making through prints, illustrations, anime, and much more. “There’s power in recognizing, honoring, and building on the work of others,” says Friedman. “Our creator community is infinitely imaginative, and we can’t wait to see how you break boundaries, remix our designs, and take the Fluent emoji to places we can’t foresee.”

I’m personally hoping that the creative freedom of the community inspires Microsoft to enable a system-wide replacement of emoji so Windows users can add themed emoji for different holidays and more. At the very least, I’m sure Windows 11 users would love to see the truly 3D versions of Microsoft’s emoji appear in the company’s operating system one day.