Emoji IRL: A Q&A with the designer who sees emoticons as works of art


The artist Liza Nelson models for one of her “IRL” emojis. (Liza Nelson)

Since Apple introduced the illustrated characters to its iPhone library in 2011, emoji have been a beloved piece of the American texting vernacular. But to 25-year-old Liza Nelson, the artist and graphic designer behind the wildly popular project “Emoji IRL. LOL,” which imagines the icons as their real-life equivalents, emoji represent something bigger — a universal language, a revolution in graphic art and a tidal shift in the way we communicate.

Nelson and I recently chatted about her work by e-mail. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

First off – can you tell me a little about yourself?

Liza Nelson: Well, my name is Liza (pronounced like Liza Minnelli). I’m 25 years old, currently living in Los Angeles. I moved here from Denver about three months ago and I actually shot all of my Emoji IRL. LOL. series in the studio at the advertising agency I worked at there. I’m a graphic designer more than anything else, and at the moment I’m freelancing. Other current projects include making photographic patterns and working on finding a full-time design job (hopefully at a motion graphics/production agency).

What inspired Emoji IRL?

A screenshot of artist Liza Nelson's phone with the emoji she's used most recently. A screenshot of artist Liza Nelson’s phone with the emoji she’s used most recently.

As a designer I’m incredibly interested in and drawn to visual communication of any kind. I began talking about emojis and their merit and universalism with so many friends and creatives that I decided I had to create some sort of homage to the individual characters I loved so much. I started thinking about how amazing it would be to see a life size emoji walking down the street, so I decided I had to get as close to that terrifying and hilarious vision as possible.

I wanted to see if the emoijs were as unmistakably iconic as I believed them to be. I figured that even if I replaced the red dress with a red crop top and puffy skirt, people would instantly recognize the image as everybody’s favorite digital salsa dancer, even from at a distance or at a quick glance. I thought it would be a funny commentary on this bizarre, even cheesy, new universal language we all have replaced real sentences with.

It’s funny that you say “universal language” — because there’s a bit of a debate out there as to whether emojis really constitute a legitimate form of communication.

Yeah, as far as my fascination with emojis goes, it’s not even that I think the images are that aesthetically pleasing — it’s more that they communicate so perfectly entire ranges of emotions and activities in seconds and more clearly than we can with words. People of every age, gender, sexuality, social status, income status and race seem to connect with emojis and be able to communicate with them. I’m not saying I believe they are completely PC or that every group of people is represented equally in this set of characters [note: more on the emoji diversity debate here], but the facial expressions are so beautifully and clearly designed that they speak to an incredibly universal human experience that we all share in a way that is often only seen in art.

And although I believe they help us communicate very clearly and quickly, from an artistic standpoint there is also a great deal of ambiguity involved, which is probably why I am so drawn to them. It’s not like our phones display titles under each emoji when we type, you actually have to dig to find out the true, Japanese meaning of each emoji. I love that one emoji can be interpreted 10 different ways by 10 different people, yet when I use one in a text conversation with someone I expect them to know exactly what I’m saying, and they always do.


(Liza Nelson)

What would you say to people who see emojis as a fad — something “the kids” do?

Well, I don’t think any form of communication that speeds up and replaces real human interaction and thoughtful conversation is going to fade away, sadly. But maybe that’s because I just saw the movie “Her” and I’m terrified that one day we will all be walking around only communicating through our phones instead of with the people physically in front of our faces.

I’m sure the tiny illustrations that we are currently using on our iPhones every day will get redesigned or replaced by something more modern and elegant, by something that’s even faster at communicating entire sentences and emotions. But I can’t imagine this idea of quick, visual communication ever fading away. I can see it only becoming more prominent.

So what’s your process like for creating one of these images?

I started really overanalyzing certain emojis after forming such a relationship with them over the years, to the point where I felt like they had to be pulled out of the phones and looked at more carefully. I started screen-shotting them and zooming in to them over and over and really studying the shape and facial expressions, where the light was coming from on them, where the shadows hit, etc. My main focus was that I wanted it to be obvious that every piece I did was an image of a tangible, 3D object that you could actually reach out and touch.

Certain emojis I decided to sculpt using clay or papier maché and then paint to really accentuate the cartoony, playfulness of the characters. Some were made of found objects, but painted in a way that portrays the complete irony and silliness of these exaggerated pixel-based illustrations. Because I think most people probably use those emojis in playful, sarcastic or sexual ways — not to actually talk about shooting someone or what they’re cooking for dinner.

Then there’s the emojis with human elements in them. I posed for all the emojis involving hands or arms myself, and I’m also the “Who, Me?” little blue-shirted person with rays above their head, which apparently everybody interprets differently. I made the blue triangle rays out of cardboard and hung them from the ceiling with wire and string, set the self-timer on my SLR camera and ran back and forth many, many times until I got the perfect pose, lighting, angle, etc. I had my girlfriend pose for “The Goddess” and my roommate pose for “Mustache.” We had the actual emojis blown up on the computer screen next to them in the studio for reference and we would keep studying the exact facial expressions and body position until my photographs were as identical as possible sitting side by side the real emoji on the screen.


(Liza Nelson)

What’s the emoji you find yourself using most often?

I would say my most-used emoji is either the monkey with its hands over its mouth or the one I call “Praisin.” They’re always there for me when I need them.

Caitlin Dewey is The Post’s digital culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindewey or subscribe to her daily newsletter on all things Internet. (tinyletter.com/cdewey)

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