Teach Your Students to Make Their Own Emojis

At some point in our art teaching careers we’ve encountered lessons that have been total disasters and others that are hits. This year I have been piloting a new Digital Art and Design class for 8th graders. I’ll be the first to admit there were a lot of flops at the beginning, but I’m starting to get in the groove. I recently experienced a lesson that totally knocked it out of the park– in fact, it went way beyond. I had intended for the project to be fun and light-hearted, but it blossomed into something motivational and inspiring. Yet, the idea was sparked from something quite trivial–an emoji.

Let me introduce to you the most motivating graphic design project of all time: Create Your Own Emoji!

If you’d like to try this project in your classroom, just follow the 5 easy steps below.

1. Provide Inspiration

image courtesy of We and the Color
image courtesy of WE AND THE COLOR

Before you even say the word “emoji,” take a look at the artwork of contemporary Chinese artist Yue Minjun. His artworks are characterized by the Cynical Realism movement, a contemporary Chinese art movement that includes humor, satire, and irony. Share Minjun’s work with your students and ask them how they would describe it. Chances are they’ll look right past the ironic and satirical meaning and look straight to those giant cartoon, emoji-like images. Once you say emoji, your students will be hooked!

2. Lay the Foundation

author "holding" her own emoji

Before your students begin creating they must determine a subject to turn into an emoji. Have students pick 3 different subjects: themselves, a celebrity, and a teacher. A diverse selection will challenge students to think creatively!

Next, decide on a digital editing platform to create your emojis. In my classroom, we used Photoshop. If you do not have access to Photoshop try out a free, online editing program like Pixlr or Sumo Paint.

To effectively complete this project, students should have a basic understanding of the following 4 tools:

  • the lasso tool
  • the magic wand/quick selection tool
  • the paintbrush tool
  • the mixer brush tool

Most of your students will probably want to use the emojis created by Apple. Take this opportunity to discuss Copyright and Fair Use. Ensure your students have an understanding of derivative work and parody.

3. Create the Emojis

After students choose a subject, it’s time to create. Here’s what to do.

student emoji examples
A) Make sure that the canvas area you are working with is small.
I found 6” x6” worked well. This limits the features students are able to include, making the emoji more successful when it is shrunk down to size. Students might need to do a little research to determine the characteristics of their subject. As a student described it, a little “awkward creeping” will help determine said features.

B) Once the features are determined, have students start with an emoji base. This may be an emoji that already looks similar to the chosen subject or an emoji that characterizes a particular expression. To do this, students will need to do a simple web search. This base will be put on the blank canvas enabling edits.

C) After the emoji base is decided, encourage students to work in multiple ways to create their emojis. This will include finding images from the web and incorporating digital drawing. The brush tool is perfect for this. When I created my emoji, I started with an emoji base. I used an image of a tie dye pattern to create the shirt, used the lasso tool to edit the hair, and used the paint and mixer brush tool to add a braid. Because many features will be edited and added, emphasize the importance of working in layers. This allows students to easily resolve errors!

4. Add a Cross-Curricular Component

4 different emojis of same teacher

Since students are so motivated about this project anyway, it’s a great time to throw in a cross-curricular component. Writing is a natural choice. I had each student compose a message to the teacher they chose to depict. These sweet messages also included some of the challenges and triumphs students experienced through the project. Another way to incorporate writing would be to have students write a fictional story incorporating all three of their emojis. The possibilities are endless!

students with the teacher they chose to depict
students with the teacher they chose to depict

5. Use the Emojis

One of the most motivating parts of this project is knowing the emojis can actually be put to use! The “Imoji” app can be downloaded to a smartphone and allows for the use of the emoji as a small image. Take some time to show your students how this app works. It’s very simple to use and most of your students will figure it out before you even finishing explaining. In fact, before I was done explaining most of my students had already sent a text message to their parents to show them what they had created!

The connection to pop culture will continue to motivate and inspire your students to create. At the same time, students will be learning about digital design and incorporating cross-curricular components. Try this project in your classroom. It’s sure to be a home run that will engage your students and go far beyond the classroom!

How do you incorporate pop culture into your art lessons?

What graphic design projects are home runs in your classroom?

Abby Schukei

Abby is a middle school art teacher in Omaha, NE. She focuses on creating meaningful experiences for her students through technology integration, innovation, and creativity.


  • Tony

    Killer Idea!

  • Wendy Aracich

    I love this so much! There’s a real-world connection here, too, because there are people that design emojis for a living. This is something I am going to try to incorporate in my digital art class.

    • Abby Schukei

      I love you that you pointed out the real world connection, I didn’t even think of that!

  • lux_arts

    this is cool! I think my kids would like to do this, but we don’t have digital equipment. Maybe I will have them create drawings and transfer them to sticker paper? Great Idea, Abby!

  • Denise Tanaka

    Thanks so much for this fabulous idea! Ready to try with my 8th graders very soon :)

  • Sherri sanders

    How creative. This is one my students would love. Could you do this on iPads?

    • Abby Schukei

      Yes! I’d try out the Brushes Redux or Autodesk Sketchbook apps (both are free!!)

  • John J

    This is really cool – thanks for bringing up the cross-curricular connection; I’ve been coming up with some ideas for incorporating contemporary examples of creativity as a future English teacher and this really helped me!

  • JoannaB

    Where do you or students find an emoji base? Is this just picture of an emoji from google images?

    • Abby Schukei

      Yes, another great place to look is on creative commons which is available for use through public domain.

  • Mara Swindell

    I need more help with this. Teaching a Digital Design class and really want to do this with my students, but digital stuff is not my forte… trying to play with Pixlr and create an example but I just don’t get it. How did you put the different shirts on there?

    • Different shirts can be used be pulling in an image in a different layer. For instance, I just took a tie dye patterned image and used the selection tool to fit into the shirt shape.

    • Abby Schukei

      Different shirts can be used be pulling in an image in a different layer. For instance, I just took a tie dye patterned image and used the selection tool to fit into the shirt shape.

  • Kay McKinley

    Hi Abby-
    I’m designing outreach projects under the theme of story symbols. This is a fantastic idea. I’m curious as to how much time to allow for this project.
    Thank you!

    • Abby Schukei

      When I do it with my students I have them create 3 different emojis. One of themselves, a teacher, and a celebrity/athlete. All 3 of them take an average of 7 class days.

  • smoun

    Hi Abby, I just discovered your website. I must say it is the best I have seen, so clean, easy to read and find things and get inspired. I love your emoji ideas, I’m thinking of starting the school year with this task with my 8th graders (year 8). Im from Sydney Australia and our syllabus is changing similar to your standards, which is very interesting.. Thanks again

  • Dipti Patel

    Hi Abby, I really would like to try this. I am not sure what you mean by emoji base. Is that an image?

  • Miss Baylor

    Hi! I’m trying this with my students. I’m nervous. . . haha. Where did you suggest they get the emoji bodies? I grabbed a wikimedia emoji face, but then do I just teach them to draw the body and the shirt and hair. . . or did every student use images? HELP!? I’m so nervous. . . =/

    • Abby Schukei

      I usually have students pick an emoji to reference from, then they digitally draw it to fit their needs. Some students will just like to create on their own!

      • Miss Baylor

        So, you said they started with an emoji base- but then did they trace around it and used their traced/re-drawn emoji? OR, did they find a fair use emoji base and just add the details by drawing? I’m sorry, I’m struggling to decide how / where they should get their emoji base?

  • Miss Baylor

    Me again! I’m looking for the Imoji app you mentioned and I can’t find it via the app store on my phone. . . ?

  • Miss Baylor

    Hello, Abby! I have adjusted this AMAZING lesson plan to be more challenging for the middle school level children. Would The Art of Ed be interested in me publishing another blog to add to this one!? I’d love to!! Let me know? And THANK YOU soooo much for this idea! It has been the student’s ABSOLUTE favorite!