When Joanna Figliozzi was in design school, she never imagined she’d end up as Kim Kardashian West’s personal emoji designer.
But as a senior art director at Whalerock Industries, the West Hollywood-based media company that runs all of the Kardashian-Jenner clan’s apps and digital properties, Figliozzi spent the first weeks of 2017 brainstorming words with Kim and her husband, Kanye West, that would go on a set of new candy heart emojis for Kardashian West’s emoji app, Kimoji.
Some of the winners? “I Hate You,” “Ratchet,” “Send Nudes,” and “Just the Tip.”
The candy hearts launched as a new set of Kimoji on Valentine’s Day, along with a bouquet of roses, a heart-shaped pizza, a bottle of lube, a sheet of contraceptive pills, the Kama Sutra, and a set of furry red handcuffs. They join classic Kimoji, like Kim’s world-famous posterior, booze, junk food, and fancy cars, along with Kimoji only aimed at super-fans, like a ticket for birthday sex, a bento box, Kim’s driver’s license, a pregnancy test, and a flying pig that actually flaps its wings. The most popular Kimoji? Kim’s iconic crying face. You can have all of these little pieces of Kim’s life for just $2.99 (or $1.99, if you just want the original pack).
When the app first launched in December 2015, it shot straight to number one in the app store, reportedly generating $1 million per minute at one point to become the highest grossing entertainment app at the time. Kim even reported that it crashed the app store, tweeting, “Apple, I’m so sorry I broke your app store!” (Apple later denied there was any issue.)
Now, just more than a year later, the app remains near the top in the entertainment app rankings, hovering around number 10, and in the top 200 overall. Countless copycats have emerged, and custom emoji are now a full-fledged industry. Today the app store hosts custom icons for celebrities like Sia, Kevin Durant, Simone Biles, Justin Bieber, DJ Khaled, and even fashion icon Iris Apfel, and for brands like Starbucks, Ikea, Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Comedy Central.
But Kim has no plans to relinquish her emoji throne. The design team is busy building new stickers that keep apace with Kardashian West’s life. But they’re not just designing emoji–Kimoji is leading a nascent industry, one that puts brands inside people’s keyboards. Kimoji has been successful not only because it appeals to Kim’s rabid fan base; the emojis also speak the language of 21st century pop culture, making them general enough that even non-fans can use them. That’s the real genius of the design: Kimoji’s designers balance insider knowledge with mass appeal. To find out more, I spoke with Figliozzi about her job and the design process.
The planning and design of Kimoji began nearly two years before its launch. “I wanted to create emoji that everyone wishes they had,” Kardashian West wrote on her website when the app launched. “And we wanted to push the limits as far as we could, LOL!”
Figliozzi says the early design process began with brainstorming as a team, with Kardashian West’s input. “We started with reactions and emotions,” she says. “Obvious ones like the crying face, and her defining physical features, the clear iconic things about Kim.” Along with dreaming up specific ideas for emoji, Figliozzi’s small design team presented their concept for the general style of the app to Kardashian West on a mood board. “We started with flat, 2D, Apple emoji-like faces, but she wanted to push the brand to be separate from the rest,” Figliozzi says. Instead, Kim wanted glossier, more lifelike imagery–a more three-dimensional style that the standard Apple emojis only recently began to adopt.
Today, Kardashian West is just as involved as she was at the beginning. She brings the design team ideas to compliment their own thoughts and gives the final stamp of approval. Once the team determines an idea will become a Kimoji, the conversation turns to specifics: color, clothing, texture, layout, angles, physical features, and hair styles. “It’s all about the details, and we always explore a few tests before deciding on the look,” Figliozzi says.
Kimoji are often funny, verging on self-deprecating. Figliozzi says that Kim isn’t afraid to poke fun at a not-so-fun moment. Several Kimoji are realistic, almost painting-like depictions of what the team calls “weird faces,” moments caught on camera that have taken on lives of their own as memes among the Kardashian fan base. These extend to Kim’s sisters, husband, and children.
One such “weird face” icon is of Kim’s sister Kylie Jenner, who made a funny face in an interview that was later Kimoji-fied. One of Figliozzi’s favorites is of Kim’s daughter North, based on a moment when the family was in New York: North and Kim were on opposite sides of a window pane, and North stuck her tongue out at her mom. It wasn’t just a cute mother-daughter moment–it was Kimoji gold.
The team at Whalerock gets to push the boundaries of emoji not only in terms of content, but also in format. KimoGIFs, which debuted in February, 2016, are exactly what they sound like–animated GIFs that complement the stationary Kimoji. Some take the form of animated neon signs, saying things like, “Blah blah blah,” and “Sorry I am such an asshole.” There are quite a few that show off Kardashian West’s body, including Kim dancing around a pole, Kim twerking, someone slapping Kim’s butt, Kim balancing a red Solo cup on her posterior, and even a shot from Kanye West’s famed and much-parodied “Bound 2” music video, in which the two seem to have sex on a motorcycle. With so many sexually suggestive emojis, it’s no surprise the app is rated 17+.
“For KimoGIFs, our animated versions, we look more for emotion, expressions, body language,” Figliozzi says. “They set a great visual language when communicating. For example, the eye roll KimoGIF, one of our most popular, says so much without having to type anything at all.” But her favorite KimoGIF is one where Kim does a body roll in a thick fur coat. It’s like the classic woman dancing in the red dress emoji–but sexier.
Now when Kim has ideas for new Kimoji, which are often based on real-life moments that she finds funny and wants to share with fans, she sends Figliozzi a message with images for inspiration, and the process begins again. New packs of Kimoji are released every few months, with topical additions–pre-election, the design team added Kimoji of crying Trump, crying Clinton, and crying Obama. By regularly updating the app with new icons (there are currently 436), the design team manages to stay on top of trends. “[Kim] recognized the need to constantly be tweaking and iterating and adding to it–changing the design, keeping the audience on their toes,” says Jared Heinke, the head of digital at Whalerock. “She has an instinct around this stuff.”
Kimoji is only one of the many Kardashian-related apps that Whalerock manages, but its popularity has made it a blockbuster. As the team heads into 2017, they’re hoping to continue to build their audience and increase engagement. But as for what comes next for the app, Kardashian West is the only one who knows. “We have the best marketer in the world as a partner,” Heinke says. “There aren’t many rules and that’s fun. You never know where she’s going to want to take it.”
Designing for Kimoji is vastly different than any other kind of digital or graphic design. After all, Figliozzi’s job didn’t even exist five years ago. Unlike designing for a more traditional company, she and her team work with a creative partner who embodies the brand itself. Kardashian West’s personality is her brand, and her business is her ability to turn her life into marketing. She’s anticipated one of the key branding trends in the 21st century–that the logo is a thing of the past. Instead of her visual identity consisting of fonts and logos, all Kim Kardashian West needs is emoji.
The design challenge is inherent in that tension–the brand and the woman are hard to distinguish. “Kim is Kimoji,” Figliozzi says. “She is the brand.”