Who Really Designed Apple’s Emoji?

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Justin Bai’s podcast started out looking for answers about a single emoji.

While you might just use emoji as a way to type faster and spice up your messages — proclaim your 100 status, weep like a sad kitten, let your significant other know you really want some eggplant Parmesan — but for some people, the pictographs aren’t just fun … they’re an obsession. Enter Justin Bai, a Brown University student who produced a short podcast for the school’s online story platform, Now Here This, detailing his search for answers about the picture of an unknown man that appeared on the card-index emoji. That’s the one that looks like a Rolodex — assuming you’re old enough to remember what those are. (Note: Apple redesigned the card-index emoji in December, and the photo is now an emoji woman instead of a human man.)

In his research, Bai discovered a New York Magazine interview from 2012 with Willem Van Lancker, who told New York he created 400 of the 500 original emoji characters while he was an intern at Apple in 2009. But when Van Lancker didn’t initially respond to Bai’s tweets and emails, Bai turned to Ollie Wagner, a programmer who also worked at Apple back in the early emoji days, who says he designed over 300 of the emoji. “I think he [Van Lancker] actually designed closer to maybe 15 or 20,” Wagner told Bai. “I think maybe he had done some tweaks maybe on 50 more than that, but, yeah, the vast majority of them were designed before his time.” Wagner also claims he designed the pizza emoji, which he says he knows Van Lancker claimed he designed. “Willem’s work folder contained 74 emoji, around 15 to 20 of which were original,” Wagner said. “Otherwise he made extremely minor tweaks to align with feedback from the carriers and Unicode.”

With this new and puzzling info, Bai again reached out to Van Lancker, who replied quickly. “Authorship is complex, especially for a project of this scope, size, and duration,” Van Lancker said. “I did an interview years ago that tried to make that too simple, crediting me as ‘the designer.’ The emoji had several designers involved, both before and after I worked on them.” Van Lancker reiterated his claim that he worked on a “few hundred emoji” during his time at Apple. After their conversation, Bai says he rechecked Van Lancker’s website and discovered the “personal favorites” section (meaning “personal favorites” of the emoji he designed) had vanished.

As for Bai’s original quest to find the man on the card-index emoji, he was ultimately unsuccessful. Wagner guessed it was probably a stock photo, and Bai wasn’t able to track down anything conclusive. But honestly, the great battle for emoji bragging rights is a way better story anyway.

Who Really Designed Apple’s Emoji?