Making Emoji with Always With Honor

An Interview with the Designers of the new Windows 10 Emoji

Hey all! It’s my immense pleasure to bring you a chat I had with Tyler and Elsa Lang of Always With Honor. They recently helped Microsoft pull off a really amazing and refreshing emoji reboot. I was impressed when Microsoft announced the new emoji and I was so pleased when I discovered Always With Honor was behind it. I’ve admired their colorful, clean illustration work for a long time. I wanted to sit down and talk with them about their real-world experiences in designing emoji for such a big client.

Elsa and Tyler Lang. Photographer: Ashley Forrette

Colin M. Ford: Tyler and Elsa, hello and thanks for taking the time to speak with me! Since I come to emoji from type design, and you come to emoji from icon design and illustration, I thought it would be interesting to hear your point of view.

So, first I thought maybe you could explain a little bit about how the project got started, like what Microsoft came to you with, and what you added to it.

Tyler Lang: So we had worked with Microsoft a little bit, probably two years ago. We did some work for Xbox One. We created little avatars that is like your profile avatar picture. You can select from probably 200 different little illustrations: it could be a robot, it could be a planet… it’s just little characters that you can use as your online Xbox One profile. So we worked with creative director Ramiro Torres on that. He recently switched from Team Xbox to the Microsoft Design Language team, which looks at the whole, overall design and branding of Microsoft’s design language. They deal a lot with the typefaces they use, and emojis fell under that. Pretty much it started with him, then they briefed us about it. It was pretty straight forward.

Elsa Lang: Yeah, it was pretty straight forward, considering it being such a huge project. It was very much like, “hey, do you guys want to do some emojis?”, and we said, “of course! That’s awesome!” It was like that — pretty easy compared to other things that are a lot more complex in terms of the upfront. It was also helpful to get us going. When you don’t think too hard on what this thing is gonna be, you just go in and start working. We knew it would be about 300 emoji, originally.

TL: I think a full emoji set is like 1300 characters, or something like that. There’s tons of small little ones that you never think about. So our job was to create 300 of the main emojis, and Microsoft would then build out the rest of the emoji set based on our 300 “parent” emoji. We worked with a lot of the smileys — got the smileys figured out first. Then we figured out the big ones, the ones that would reflect a lot of the the other the emojis down the line.

On Choosing Which Emoji to Design First

CMF: How did you decide which ones were the key emoji to design first?

TL: Microsoft came to us with the set lists, and they are basically like, “these 300 are the emoji that we need you guys to tackle”. They had done a lot of research of that, and so they came to us with a real clear-cut idea.

EL: We knew what we wanted to start on. The initial start was quick style sketches on a smiley, a full person, and a few objects. We got a really quick style exploration to see how these things were going to work, but we knew after that we wanted to start building smileys first and have that be the grid, basically, for everything else to build off of. So, basically: smileys, people, and then from there, everything else. The people were probably the tougher ones, I guess, in terms of making sure that they worked at face size, bust size, and full body, working obviously within that really tight grid. So, we got those out of the way first.

Microsoft Windows 10 “emoji are composed using basic geometry, a 32 EP × 32 EP grid, and a 2 EP black stroke outline.” Illustration: Microsoft Design

TL: Yeah, those are the most important. Once we figured out the design language and laws that happened within those emoji, and the level of detail within them, we have parameters to build out the rest of the smaller and lesser-known ones, like animals and sport equipment — you know, stuff like that — food.

EL: Yeah, and the weird ones!

TL: Yeah, I mean it was relatively straightforward and very logical on how we worked through it, which usually isn’t the case. Usually, with these is more complicated projects, they have more convoluted workflows… this one just made a lot of sense. We started with landing on the style through using a few different example emojis and putting them through the wringer, then once we had that, we built the smileys, built the people and then kind of went from there.

Eclectic Emoji for Microsoft Windows 10 Anniversary Edition. Illustration: Always with Honor

On Designing with Context and Striking a Balance

CMF: When you were designing, did you design within any sort of context, like next to fonts or thinking about them in text?

EL: Ah, it was kind of in a vacuum, in that sense, because this was coming out with windows 10, and we didn’t really know what was going on the other side of the design. What we did do was, every time, while we were designing, we were looking at the grid of every other version of that emoji. So, you know, we’re looking at the Apple version, the Android, the Twitter, because we want these things to work within that language. That was very important. We tried to take some stylistic things when we could, but for the most part Microsoft wanted things to look like what the emoji typically looks like.

Designing Emoji in Context. Illustration: Always with Honor

TL: Yeah, I mean that’s the only way to the emoji language can work, is if it’s familiar. So, you’re constantly on this balance of being familiar yet still unique. Able to stand apart from the group and be something that Microsoft can really own. I think that was a big part of this. The emoji set they did before… I think they were ready for a change. They’ve been updating their design language a lot lately, and so they really wanted something that they could really own as being Microsoft. Something that was very strong and bold on its own, but yet still pretty representative of all the other emojis that had come before it.

On Building a System

CMF: How did designing emoji, which works like a written script, change your thinking from when you’re designing just icons, for like the Xbox? Did you think of them as working side-by-side more, as opposed to standing on their own?

EL: I mean, of course being a person who has used emojis, you constantly think in that way, sometimes you text in that way, so you know I think that familiarity brought a lot of fun and casualness of the project. We were like, “oh cool we get to illustrate this emoji!” But for us it was just really important to build that really tight system in the front, because that was what was going to make everything work. If we stuck to that system we knew that things would sit together well. Obviously, having the unifying factor of that pixel line around helps make everything fit in its own way. All the angles were a certain angle… everything was thought through so that we didn’t necessarily have to put things next to each other to know that they were going to work. But, that was the way we were designing. We would have multiple sketches for one emoji and just be able to see which one works better. So, it was very much almost like designing a typeface because you’re kind of designing this horizontal way, where you’re kind of making these things in lines and just seeing which one works best.

Stress Testing Emoji. Illustration: Always with Honor

TL: Yeah, there’s an obvious kind of like flow that you want. When you’re actually looking at the outline of the emojis, you want them to have similar levels of detail. Even in something like the snowboarder emoji, that has a lot of things going on it, if you look at the contour, it’s still a pretty simple contour. So that if it’s sitting next to an apple or banana or something, it doesn’t look like it’s from a different family — it’s still got a similar level of detail. We tried our best to make things not too busy or detailed. If you just color everything black, there’s nothing that jumps off the page as being enormously simplified or more detailed than one or the other. Unless you’re thinking about like the smileys, those are kind of their own little family there, just being the circles, but if you look at everything else, it should have the right flow to it.

On Stress Testing Your System

CMF: Finally, Is there any advice you would offer to somebody else who’s setting out on making their own emoji set? Is there any advice that you have for developing a system or trying to walk that line between familiarity and uniqueness?

TL: I mean, it’s a hard one. Every time we make a new system, I think it’s just important to kind of stick with it. I mean, the first system that you build, you’ll need to constantly tweak it, because the first one you build isn’t gonna be perfect. Once you start building it out, you’ll find flaws that you didn’t see before. Don’t be afraid to to change things, don’t get set in your ways with things. You might say you have something perfect and then realize you have to design a bicycle, for example, and it completely throws off the system. Well, that’s part of it. What can you do differently to get through the whole thing? Those are things that just are just gonna happen. If you start out building a system, start off with as many different things as you can. Don’t just start a system just looking at all the smileys or all the people. Make sure you have the smileys, a person, an animal, a fruit, something more detailed like a building or something. Then there’s less chance for something that’s a surprise you along the way.

Developing a System to Tackle Diverse Emoji. Illustration: Always with Honor

EL: The style kind of has prove itself, that it can be run through these different things. Because you like, “oh, it would be really cool if it where this way”. If you have a cool idea for something, run it through. Run it through so you know it works before you get to really deep.

TL: You gotta stress test it.

EL: Yeah, stress test it. Like Tyler said, don’t start building my all the faces in that style because, ok those all work, but once you start hitting things that are more complex it gets harder. Those levels of complexity getting deeper and deeper are really what’s tough about working at that size. So, it’s important to really run through the trenches in the beginning. It’ll be more fun for you when you have a better idea of what you’re gonna do. Then things come up, but you know… you do your best.

CMF: Okay! I think that’s a good place to leave it. Elsa and Tyler, thanks so much for sitting down and talking about emoji!

TL: Awesome! Thanks so much, Colin!

EL: Thanks, we appreciate it!

Thanks so much for reading! If you want to learn more about emoji, you might be interested in in an upcoming workshop.

And thanks so much to Always With Honor! If you liked reading this interview, read my other articles on emoji, and click the “recommend” button 👇.