Mar 2, 2020 • 30M

#11 "Emoji King" Jeremy Burge Shares a Quote

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Stephen Harrison
Notes on Quotes is a wide-ranging interview series where interesting people share a quote that’s meaningful to them. Hosted by Stephen Harrison who has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic. He's currently a columnist for Slate. Throughout 2020, Harrison is interviewing authors, scholars, actors, entertainers, and more about a quote of their choosing. Brought to you by Aftermath Ventures, LLC.
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Jeremy Burge is the Founder and Chief Emoji Officer of Emojipedia, the online encyclopedia of emojis. He’s also the creator of World Emoji Day and Vice-Chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, the panel which regularly reviews proposals for new emoji. Radio National in Australia has described Jeremy as the “Emoji King.”

This print interview has been edited, condensed, and annotated. The podcast is available on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifyYouTube, and other platforms.

Stephen Harrison: So what quote are we chatting about today?

Jeremy Burge: It’s a quote from Steve Jobs: “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer—that the designers are handed a box and told ‘Make it look good.’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

That quote comes from an interview Steve Jobs gave the New York Times in 2003. I’m curious: out of all the quotes you could have selected, why did you pick this one?

It did feel a bit trite selecting a quote from Steve Jobs. Coming from the technology world, it seemed like an overused choice. But this quote is important to me because it encapsulates my theory of product design and what ultimately makes a product work well.

There are a few ways to define design, and often the people who work in “design” at companies in fact work in graphic design. Product design, however, is about making decisions about what the product is in the first place, what features to include, and who’s going to use it. And if you look at design from the product perspective, then the designer is really the fundamental decisionmaker.

In the quote, Jobs suggests that designers are brought too late into the creative process, and that this is a huge mistake.

That is absolutely the case for most companies. The poor designers are handed—well, this turd—and then they’re asked to polish it. But it’s not that simple. What needed to happen was for someone to make a better decision several months or even years ago in order to make the product work.

You began your career in consulting before founding Emojipedia. What was it that made you want to break out on your own?

I was advising companies on how to build things, and for the most part, they didn’t listen! Every company wanted to grow their social media presence. I’d tell them to make it interesting—to put up photos of what’s happening and interesting news stories. But all my clients did was put up blah-blah content that nobody wants to read, boring stuff about so-and-so being appointed to a new position. So it was a frustrating experience where I was literally getting paid to tell my clients “put up interesting things online,” and none of them did it.

I was working on Emojipedia in my spare time, and I think it was almost to prove my point: “Hey, look how easy it is to write interesting things online.” And the project could have been a big failure, but it turned out people liked it. Today the site gets 30 million page views per month. It turns out that when you find something the whole world uses and wants to know about, and then you write about it, then you can make something successful.

But was there something that resonated with you personally about emojis?

I’ve always been fascinated with niche topics. For example, I had a site about Byrd the bailiff on the program Judge Judy, who hardly speaks but occasionally makes quips on the show. And I had a site that looked at all those old widgets on Mac.  Don’t get me wrong: all of these earlier projects were incredibly unpopular! Emojipedia was the first time that this theme of hyper-documentation became commercially successful.

Would it be impolite to ask how Emojipedia makes money? I know Wikipedia is a nonprofit, just for comparison.

The articles on Emojipedia about different emojis display ads. That’s because Emojipedia is a publisher. People say publishing is in trouble, and I can see why. Online ads don’t make much money per ad clicked or viewed. But we’re a small company. I’m the only full-time employee, and everyone else only works part-time. I’ve gone to companies based on the same publishing business model, except that they have 50 or 100 employees, and I think Well, unfortunately, that’s not sustainable. My view is that it’s possible to be successful writing content for the internet, but only if you keep costs down and don’t get ahead of yourself.

What were some of the design principles you considered when you put together Emojipedia?

Honestly, I think the idea was to get the content out there first. You’ll notice that a lot of popular websites are ugly, and people don’t seem to care. Wikipedia, one of the most popular websites in the world, is pretty ugly.  Google was ugly to begin with and is still really bare-bones. Reddit is also quite ugly.

When it comes to content on the web, people just want to get to it. And that actually goes with the Steve Jobs quote. The product has to work. I don’t want people to comment on how nice or clever Emojipedia looks. I just want them to think it’s the simplest website in the world.

Steve Jobs had a reputation for being brilliant, but not the nicest person to work with. Whereas, you have the reputation of being a very friendly, easy-going guy. And you selected the title Chief Emoji Officer instead of CEO.

It would be ridiculous to be in charge of a company and not think of it as slightly amusing. Yes, I take it seriously, in the sense that we’re committed to documenting and archiving accurate information about emojis. But I think there’s a bit too much self-importance in the tech sector sometime. And I don’t want to be seen as showing off my position. Because in reality, I’m a guy who runs a company about emojis. So why not make it a bit of fun?