Meet Twitter’s emoji designer

She’s illustrated the Pope, the Queen, Shakespeare and lots of pop stars: Emma Hopkins is Twitter’s dedicated emoji designer

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Can you tell us what your background is and when you started designing emojis for Twitter?

My path will probably sound familiar to other designers as it’s a well-trodden one; a pinch of art university, a string of internships and tutelage from amazing people via on-the-job experience. When I decided to specialise in graphic design, I’m not sure I even knew what it was. Eventually, I fell in love with letters and shapes and now it’s all I think about.

I started creating emojis for Twitter in 2015 and it all started with the X Factor. Since then I’ve become the go-to person when it comes to creating custom emoji illustrations. It seems years of obsessive tinkering in Illustrator and bingeing on pop culture have finally paid off and I’ve built up a growing portfolio of emoji that is both ridiculous and strangely fulfilling.

Ant n Dec emoji
Ant n Dec emoji

How does Twitter decide which emojis are created and why?

The great thing about Twitter is that it’s a platform for whatever you want to talk about so no matter what you’re interested in there will be someone else to share that with. But there are also moments in time, whether that’s events or certain personalities, that have a bit of momentum and bring people together – things like the Euros, Wimbledon. Even bands and bloggers.

We look at what would be interesting to our users and whether an emoji would add value to their experience on the platform. For example, we knew that Shakespeare’s 400th birthday was going to be a big deal in the UK and that lots of people would be talking about it, and so a bespoke emoji of the man himself was created (shown top) to add a bit of fun for users.

Ghostbusters emoji created to tie in with the new film
Ghostbusters emoji created to tie in with the new film

Why do emojis at all? What do they do that you can’t achieve with, say, a hashtag?

We are always thinking about ways to improve communication and expression on the platform, and how people can share their thoughts and feelings on Twitter. Generally speaking, emojis help people to do that but in a more light-hearted way.

By creating specific emojis for people or events we help them to join in the conversation – so in some regards they can work in a similar way to the hashtag which is more around connecting about a specific topic – but the emoji offers a more visual and creative way of doing this. And let’s not forget about the old favourites – a smiley or a confused face emoij help to articulate what a user is feeling at a given moment too.

Designing emojis of the X Factor judges
Designing emojis of the X Factor judges
Designing emojis of the X Factor judges
Designing emojis of the X Factor judges
Designing emojis of the X Factor judges
Designing emojis of the X Factor judges

Can you talk us through your process? How do you begin? Do you use photographs for reference? Do you sketch in pencil first etc?

Design work demands that you adapt radically and learn quickly in accordance with the unique conditions of the problem at hand. So when I get a new brief for the latest emoji request, I sketch, I scan, I photograph, I use Illustrator, Photoshop, or whatever the project demands. When creating emojis of people, I like to ensure I capture some personality which isn’t always easy given the size we’re working with.

With a small canvas the trick is identifying the details which users will identify with most, and be most familiar with. It’s important to put in some research though – if the person is papped nine times out of ten wearing sunglasses, then I’ll probably create a version of them wearing shades.

It can be challenging because you’re adding detail to something that’s quite small but has to immediately stand out so I repeatedly check that it works at 16×16 pixels. Not to mention excessively asking those around me if ‘this looks alright?’ – if they’re not getting it straightaway then I know I need to make changes and adapt the design.

Initial sketches for One Direction emojis
Initial sketches for One Direction emojis
Work in progress on the One Direction emojis
Work in progress on the One Direction emojis

What qualities does a successful emoji need to have from a design perspective?

A lot of effort goes into the creation of a successful emoji and visually, I try to limit the amount of ‘things’ that feature. They have to serve a purpose to the overall design. Ninety percent of the time it’s not an issue, but occasionally someone will request something that has way too much going on and makes it incredibly difficult on such a small canvas. Besides the obvious design consideration, it also depends on how accurate the depicted emoji is, and how relatable it is across different audiences.

When you see the Shakespeare emoji, you understand straightaway that it’s him – his hair and his collar are both recognisable features so it works well. Similarly, for the Pope – you know immediately what you’re dealing with because we’ve captured those features cleanly.

Design options for the Pope Francis emoji
Design options for the Pope Francis emoji
Final version of emoji created to mark Pope Francis's US visit
Final version of emoji created to mark Pope Francis’s US visit

In terms of fame and impact, what was the biggest emoji you have created?

I didn’t think it could get much bigger than Harry Styles – but the Pope (@Pontifex) is very much a global figure too, and when he made a historic visit to the US last year we wanted to create something for the occasion. For this effort, I tried different things as I think it’s so important to experiment and fail: try that unknown typeface, flip shapes upside-down, add too many colours.

Experimenting with ideas is so important because it teaches you what doesn’t work. For every good piece of work I’ve ever made, there were hundreds of awful ones that came before it and I ran through various designs for the Pope emoji – alternate hats, quirky glasses, crazy bandanas.

But the final outcome was one featuring his smiling face with the US flag behind him. This neatly helped convey the regional pride his visit represented. This was echoed by emojis representing New York, Washington DC and Philadelphia, which were all stops on his US tour.

Emoji to celebrate the Queen's 90th birthday
Emoji to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday
Justin Bieber emoji
Justin Bieber emoji
Justin Bieber emoji
Justin Bieber emoji

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