Three and a half years ago, Brooklyn-based illustrator Julia Heffernan realized she was tired of working as a customer service agent for a start-up and decided to take a risk. Today, she creates tiny, 80-by-80-pixel masterpieces depicting animals, athletes, monsters, beauty products, and famous faces. She's an emoji designer.
Since drawing her first set, she's designed emoji likenesses of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele for Season 5 of Key & Peele and an entire keyboard of emojis for NBC for the 2016 Rio Olympics. She's also created emojis for Entertainment Weekly, Sephora, and WaterAid.
Heffernan is a leader in a micro-industry of other emoji illustrators that includes Emma Hopkins, the designer behind Twitter's emojis, and Jen Lewis, who designed Kim Kardashian's Kimojis. With the whole world, it seems—from Nickelodeon to Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas to RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars—launching their own keyboards, illustrators like Heffernan and her contemporaries are responsible for transforming the way we communicate visually.
Heffernan never imagined that designing emojis could be an actual line of work. So, how did she land such a cool job? Simple: she made it up. Here's how, in her own words.
Step 1: She Capitalized on What's Always Excited Her
"Looking at my old sketchbooks from when I was 5 or 6, it seems I've always loved drawing faces and trying to express emotions with as few lines as possible," Heffernan says. "I think that directly influences what I do with emojis. It's kind of a tricky puzzle, trying to figure out what the most important part of a surprised face is and then translating that into a yellow circle with two eyes and a mouth. Part of the reason I gravitated toward emojis is just that my style had kind of been like that already. It was just a perfect fit.."
Step 2: She Experimented With New Skills in School
Heffernan attended New York University's Gallatin School of Independent Study, where she was free to create her own curriculum. "I studied animation and children's literature, so I took a bunch of courses about illustrating and character design," Heffernan explains. "I learned how to express emotions with as few words as possible and as few strokes as possible, which is important when animating for children."
Step 3: She Saw an Opportunity and Took a Risk
Upon graduating college, Heffernan started working as a customer service agent at the messaging app, GroupMe. She noticed that customers were frequently writing in requesting new emojis and wished she could try making a few herself.
"The company had a Hack Week, where everyone got to work on a personal project for the company, then present it at the end of the week," Heffernan recalls. "As a customer service agent, I didn't really get to do that. Out of frustration, I took two days off of work and made a bunch of emojis that the users had requested over email. The bosses liked them, so we created a whole set."
Step 4: She Approached Emojis as an Entrepreneur
Before she became a full-time emoji designer, Heffernan continued to work in customer service jobs. Growing a client base and preparing to make the jump to a freelance illustrator is just as much about starting a business as it is getting to be creative. "I made sure I had enough rent saved up that I could give it an honest go, but not feel like I was scraping by," she explains. "The first year, it was sort of tough to find clients. But because I made up the job, and was the first person promoting myself as a full-time emoji artist, I am now they top result on Google if you search 'emoji illustrator.' That's basically how I get all my work now."
Step 5: She Still Practices *All* the Time
As with any type of illustration, having strong practice habits makes for a strong product. In Heffernan's case, her habitual repetition is the fuel for some of her best work. "I draw a lot of patterns; it's a form of practice for me," Heffernan says. "When I'm trying to learn how to draw something, I just draw it over and over and over again. Then sometimes I'll look at my sketchbook page and be like, 'Oh, that's kind of a fun pattern. Maybe I'll just turn that into something.'"
Step 6: She Uses Side Projects to Stay Inspired
On making GIFs: "I've had them come out of my nose, I've had them come out of a hat, out of my hands. I'm trying to figure out what the next surprise will be for the monsters."
Even though illustrating emojis pays the bills, she still finds time to work on her own, uncommissioned projects. "I'm working on a children's book," says Heffernan, "just trying to force myself to do more painting on my own."
"I like the idea of interacting with my monsters."
The drive to keep pushing her personal artwork further is in part what makes Heffernan such an interesting emoji artist. Some of her emoji-like monsters have even found a life off the page. "I want to get back into animation because I haven't really done that since college, and I like the idea of interacting with my monsters. I just sat down one day when I didn't have any client work to do, and I was like, 'Maybe I'll try animating a monster and see what happens.'"