LA Designer: Liza Nelson Brings Emojis to Life

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Liza Nelson’s popular project Emoji IRL. LOL, is what she calls a ‘set of shrines’ dedicated to her love of the Japanese characters that have become a pillar of smartphone communication. Her project takes a few emoji characters and imagines them as people and objects in real life.

By Liza Nelson

Liza Nelson is a 25-year-old graphic designer from Oklahoma  who recently moved to Los Angeles to participate in the first ever Emoji Art and Design Show. Her popular project,  Emoji IRL. LOL, is what she calls a ‘set of shrines’ dedicated to her love of the Japanese characters that have become a pillar of smartphone communication. Her project takes a handful of emoji characters and envisions them as people and objects in real life. DnA’s Caroline Chamberlain interviewed Nelson, and she tells DnA what inspired her project, what other work she’s done, and how the concept of ‘flip flopping’ applies to her work. 

 CC: What about emojis inspired you to do this project?

LN: What really got me thinking was I started talking to a bunch of my creative artist friends, and we just were talking about emojis so much, it’s such a weird thing that’s become prominent in our lives. I guess it just shifted to me just getting curious about what it would be like to see an emoji in real life walking in the street. I just had this desire to see them in 3d forms. I guess I thought it would be funny and interesting to see if people would recognize them. I wanted to see if I could capture the color and facial expressions of emojis. It was kind of a challenge to see if I could replicate it and still interpret it in my own way. Taking those artistic liberties to to see instantly oh that’s the salsa dancer, that’s the mustache man. I wanted to see them brought to life, so I decided to do it myself.

By Liza Nelson

 CC: Do you know anything about the background of emojis or who designed them?

LN: I definitely don’t call myself an expert on the emojis themselves. My project was definitely more about my interpretation of them. I value them as a language. (For the record, the first emojis were created and designed by Shigetaka Kurita in Japan the ’90s. Their current manifestation became popular internationally in late 2011. Read the full history of emojis here.)

Liza Nelson as an emoji. By Liza Nelson

CC: How do you incorporate them into your language?

LN: Very incessantly and obsessively. My parents are using them. I think it’s so fascinating that we’ve replaced sentences with emojis.

Our culture/society loves quick communication. I think we all love them so much because with one little click of the button you can say more than just words can. All ages and personalities seem to relate to them because they are designed so well. I just love that they are so quick and so universal.

An emoji conversation with a friend of Caroline’s, Erin, where Erin expressed sadness that her cat is more affectionate with her boyfriend than her cat is with her.

CC: Do you have a favorite emoji? 

LN: Right now it’s the monkey with its hands over its mouth (pictured above). I feel like it lets me get away with saying things I shouldn’t.

Planned Parenthood // Animated web banners // Agency: LRXD

CC: What other graphic design work have you done?

LN: I do mostly print. This is actually a big change for me because I don’t do photography. I’m not usually the person doing the whole process. I’m freelancing at the moment and I’ve worked on billboards, posters, brochures, websites. I can design anything layout-wise. A lot less photography.

By Liza Nelson

CC: Why did you move to L.A.?

I moved out here because I was ready for a change, and ironically and luckily my emoji series took off right after I moved. I shot the series at the ad agency I worked for in Denver, and then I moved here and was finally able to finish editing and publishing up. At the same time I was finishing them, there were calls for submissions for the first ever emoji art show so getting into that was huge and really great timing. I needed something like this to get me thinking and working in a new way.

I’ve been sitting behind a computer all day as a designer and art director for 3 years now, and I’m ready to have some days where I get out from behind the screen and get to build things with my hands, create sets and art direct more fine art-type-photo shoots. I think staring into a screen all day destroys creativity when the real magic happens while talking to other creatives. I’m really interested in motion graphics and music videos and anything that brings design to life. Doing my Emoji IRL. LOL. project was a chance for me to explore that part of my brain and have a break from the monotony of print and digital design.

Rise Bar // Branding + packaging design // Agency: LRXD

CC: Is this project a reflection of you as a designer or an artist?

I believe it’s both. I think that because I am interpreting the emojis, taking artistic liberty to slightly change an outfit or using a toy instead of a “real” object, that gives the project artistic merit. Because emojis have become so iconic and instantly recognizable, I wanted to take them out of their every day context (20 x 20 pixel graphics on our iPhones) and isolate them on vibrant colors using a new medium, which are tenets of traditional pop art. I’ve heard the term “flip-flopping” associated with my work and I love that term. It means that I took something that was already a digitally rendered picture of something once real and tangible and bring it back to reality by my use of photography. And now my work is floating around on the internet, which is ironic because my original goal was to take the emojis out of the context of pixels on a screen. It’s basically just a cycle that we see constantly but don’t even bat an eyelash at anymore. The part that makes my project also a design project is the visual communication aspect.

By Liza Nelson