How to Create Your Own Emoji

Follow these step-by-step instructions for creating your own holiday emoji.

How to Create Your Own Emoji
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Emojis are widely popular and pervasive, with new additions being added to Unicode frequently. They’re fun to create, but emoji projects can be quite extensive. Good planning and a basic understanding of the principles of emoji design are essential.

Dave Brasgalla is an emoji designer at Iconfactory, an award winning agency that specializes in designing for apps, icons, and, of course, emojis. We asked Dave to walk us through his emoji design process. You can download the source file and assets for this project here and follow along.

As an introductory example, Dave created a basic “Holiday Elf” emoji in Photoshop CC, with several sample variations in features that can easily be combined to form different expressions. This particular emoji takes general cues from Apple’s standard emoji as a stylistic starting point.

Before You Start

Hello, everyone!

My name is Dave Brasgalla, and I’m excited to help you jump into designing an emoji today.

Here are some thoughts to consider before beginning: As emojis are most often used quite small, your goal should be to keep the expression of the emoji clear at those sizes. Hold this in mind as you work, and check your progress often by reducing the view as small as you can. It’s perfectly okay to add texture and fine detail to be seen at large presentation sizes, but make sure this detail doesn’t add visual noise or obscure readability once reduced. Focus on the elements that bring the emoji’s meaning to life, and resist the temptation to embellish simply for the sake of it.

Also, try to create as much of the illustration as possible using Layer Effects applied to vector shapes. Once you achieve the given look you are after for an element, you can save it as a Style, making it quick and easy to create new elements with that same look (or to edit existing styles over a large number of elements, should you need to).

Lastly, when sizing shapes and strokes, I generally try to work in multiples of 4 or 8, and I always use even-numbered measurements. I feel this makes the process of reduction function more smoothly, and lends a consistency to overall proportions. It can also help keep you from getting lost on the sizing as you work!

Basic Shapes and Silhouette

The first thing I want to do is determine the right size for the basic round emoji face. As emojis are often used quite small, I want to have the face be as large as possible while keeping a bit of room around it for special features or effects in future designs. Working at 1024×1024, I use guidelines to make an 8×8 grid. I don’t stick to this grid rigidly, but it helps keep me oriented. With pointed elf ears in mind, I decide that 820×820 feels like a good size, with enough space to have the ears stick out a bit for a recognizable silhouette.

Note that at this point, the emoji is basically four simple shapes: two concentric circles and two teardrop-shaped “ears.” The Main Emoji Shape and the Elf Ears layers have the same Layer Effects on them, with a Stroke on the inside edges to keep things sharp. The Emoji Inner Shading layer has an additional Gradient Stroke to create some highlights and dimensionality. A clipping mask on the Elf Ears layer lets me use a simple circle shape to create a shadow effect. With just these basic elements, we already have good-looking base to work on.

Adding a Hat

A Christmas-coloured wool cap makes a great prop for this emoji, both for the strengthening of the emoji’s silhouette, and the instant holiday-theme recognition that it brings — that’s a lot of value for one simple element!

I need to make the hat in two layer groups, as the top part sits “above” the face and facial details, while the tail needs to appear behind these elements. This is where the margin I left around the face comes in handy. There’s room to have some fun with the hat, but it doesn’t overwhelm the facial elements.

Note that I’ve used textures on the hat: a tabby wool texture overlay for the hat itself, and a fleecy texture for the Trim and Tail Ball. This was done using photographic texture layers and the Clipping Mask feature. I’ve been careful to keep these textures quite subtle, so that they should effectively disappear at small sizes. This approach is ideal for emoji work. For greater convenience, I could also add these textures to the Pattern Overlay Library so they could be part of a Style.

Face Time

I’m now ready to create some basic features, and a happy smile is always a great starting point. Beginning with basic, popular emotion metaphors helps build a solid foundation for your emoji suite, and will provide solid guidance if you progress to more complex metaphors.

Again, I’m keeping shapes as simple as possible, and letting Layer Effects and Clipping Masks do most of the work for me. Each eye is created from just three round shapes (with an extra layer of “eyelids” for later use), and the mouth is formed with a half-circle and a clipped rectangle. Some rosy dimples add life to the character, but are low-key enough not to interfere with the expression.

Seeing all the elements together, I decided that the stroke on the Inner Shading shape I mentioned earlier isn’t really necessary or desirable anymore, so I remove it. However, I did decide that this elf could do with a nose for extra cuteness, so I made a quick one based on some of Apple’s Unicode 10 additions.

Expanding Expressions

With my base features established, I created several variations of each to mix and match. Closed and half-closed eyes are a sensible starting place, and even a few mouth variations can go a long way. With only three mouth variations and five eye sets, I can generate quite a few fun expressions — more than enough to create a sample suite to present to a client, for example.

With some thoughtful planning and clever feature usage, even a large emoji suite can be easy and quick to create. Have fun with it, and let yourself get inspired to create your own original emoji.

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