The first emoji was created in the late 1990s, and was only available in Japan until its international inclusion in Apple's iOS in 2011, more than a decade later. The word emoji is Japanese for pictograph, and literally translates to "picture" (e) + "character" (moji).*
Emoji designer Julia Heffernan didn't always plan to be one. In fact, she was an illustrator who pursued her passion only on the side while working as a customer service rep at GroupMe, the group messaging app, when inspiration struck.
At GroupMe, customers frequently asked for new emoji to supplement the ones offered by Apple in their standard keyboard. For “hack week” at GroupMe, during which employees are encouraged to work on side projects, Julia decided to illustrate “emoji packs.” They were a hit with users, motivating her to strike out on her own as a freelance designer. GroupMe became her first client.
Julia has since designed custom emoji for brands big and small, from startups to major media companies like Comedy Central, whose emoji-centric ads for the series Key & Peele currently grace NYC subway platforms and billboards across the United States. Earlier this year, her work even made the front page of The Washington Post!
When asked how emoji design has impacted her life, Julia says, “When I say that designing emoji is my job, people usually think I’m joking. I also find myself noticing little details about emoji that aren’t obvious. For example, the emoji of written pieces, like the page facing up and scroll, all contain text from Apple’s famous “Think Different” commercial. Plus, Apple's emoji of the guy rowing a boat? He doesn't have pants on!”
It’s hard to say whether Apple knowingly included an aspiring nudist in their emoji set or if he is simply wearing khakis, but maybe not saying is precisely the point. With emoji, text messages gained nuance – a wink here, a thumbs up there – showing everyone who's ever sent a grinning face with smiling eyes that it’s possible to express yourself without any words at all 😁
Interviewed by Pavla Mikula
*emoji history courtesy of Wikipedia