A/D/O by MINI | Emoji designer Angela Guzman

Emoji designer Angela Guzman

Smiling face, nail polish, hair flip. UX designer Angela Guzman talks about creating the original set of Apple emoji.

On her nerve-racking first day as an intern at Apple, college student Angela Guzman could not have imagined the impact her work at the company would make. But during her first three months in Cupertino, she helped create a set of pictures that quickly became a universal language.

When she was tasked with producing around 480 tiny images that represent different emotions, objects, places, creatures and activities, emoji had already been used in some form in Japan since the 1990s – the word “emoji” comes from Japanese: “e” meaning “picture” and “moji” meaning “character”. But the illustrations that Guzman and mentor Raymond Sepulveda drew for use on the first iPhone, which launched in 2008, resulted in a base for a new form of communication that is now ubiquitous across the internet-using population.

“My main goal was to make each emoji very relatable and easy to understand – to go to the core basics of each image,” Guzman told The Journal. “I was more focused on getting those details rights, as opposed to thinking of it as a holistic language.”

“I had no idea this project would evolve into anything like it did.”

Born in Colombia, Guzman moved to Florida when she was eight. Without knowing the language in her new home country, visual communication became an important part of her skill set. “When I moved, I didn't speak English,” she said. “So one of the first things that I had to do was figure out how to get my message across and also understand other people.”

This early reliance on creative expression, and growing up with equally artistic siblings, led to the pursuit of design through her education. After arriving at Apple while still enrolled in grad school, she was soon briefed on the emoji project – despite having no experience as an illustrator. “Luckily I could draw,” Guzman said.

“So I did that 24/7,” she continued. “Raymond taught me the Apple aesthetic, how to make it all seem like it was made by one person as opposed to different individuals. At some point, we had to have a review with Steve Jobs, which was scary because I thought ‘what if he doesn't like it, then the whole project’s going to get canned’. But luckily he really enjoyed them and the project continued.”

The initial range of emoji has since been vastly expanded and adapted to be more inclusive, incorporate more cultural icons, and rectify controversies (for example, cream cheese was added to the bagel after an outcry). New sets of images are also released with each iOS update, with great anticipation. Meanwhile, some of the drawings have become synonymous with entirely different meanings than originally intended (think the eggplant and the peach...) but the fundamental idea transformed our use of visual communication. The phenomenon only hit Guzman when emoji began appearing outside of the phone screen. 

“The moment that I really felt they were out there is when they started to pop up in the physical world,” said the designer. “Going into a store and seeing a bunch of stickers with the exact same set that we drew.”

“My favorite is probably the party popper, because it's really festive. I remember drawing all the little confetti pieces.”

After her internship at Apple, Guzman went back to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to finish her degree in Industrial and Graphic Design, then landed a permanent position at the tech company after graduation. For the next four-and-a-half years, she worked on the visuals for several apps, including iMessage, Mail, Photobooth. “We did everything from wire-framing all the way to final design, delivering things to engineering,” said Guzman.

The designer then moved to Airbnb – founded by fellow RISD alumni – to redesign the mobile user experience, which remains largely the same today, apart from some visual updates. “I created what I call the architecture of how the host posts their apartment, communicates with the guests, sets up their calendar, and the overall experience from end to end,” she said. “And that same architecture that got transferred over to the guest environment.”

When Guzman found herself at Google, she worked on everything from the recently resurrected Google Glass, to the visual elements of search and Google Assistant. “It was really fascinating to work voice designers and other folks that I had not crossed paths with as much in the past,” Guzman said. “And also just understanding how all this magic happens when you're talking to a smart assistant.”

Still based in Silicon Valley, the designer is now working on her own platform: a skill-sharing network named Tijiko – after one of the world’s oldest trees – that is due to launch later this year. “Tijiko aims to connect people from all around the globe in a new way – a more human and natural kind of way. Where empathy is at the core,” reads the marketing material.

During Guzman’s career, user experience (UX) design has grown rapidly from a relatively unknown discipline to a hugely popular job option for young people. With specialized college courses in the subject now available and an ever-increasing demand for the skills, there’s no doubt that UX is only going to become more intuitive.

“I’m really excited about where [UX design] is going to go, with people now getting trained for it,” she said. “It’s not going to just be what we're accustomed to now, like visual design. It can be voice driven, it's going to be spatial, with things that are more tailored to you.”

Despite all the expected advances in this field, it is safe to say that emoji will remain a staple of our day-to-day communication for the foreseeable future. And for their ease of use, ubiquity and playfulness – that’s reason to celebrate! [Party popper emoji]

Angela Guzman was one of the speakers at the Uenoland conference, which took place at A/D/O in May 2019.

Text by Dan Howarth.