Was there ever a time that we were able to communicate without emojis? It’s difficult to remember, but these little icons are now an essential part of our digital communications, and if the thousands of currently available options aren’t enough for you, then you can create your own—and we’re going to show you how to do it.
We are using the term emoji quite loosely here, because you can’t actually hack into the official Unicode list of supported characters for various platforms (though you can make suggestions if you want). In terms of custom emoji, you most often need to set them up inside a single app—an app which your contacts also need to be using if they’re going to be able to see the characters.
Bearing in mind the restrictions we’ve just mentioned, any kind of custom emojis are actually stickers and images rather than genuine, natively-supported emojis—but we’ve tried to concentrate on apps that offer a user experience where your customized icons work more or less like real emoji, even if they’re technically different.
One of the easiest ways of getting started with custom emojis is through the Gboard keyboard for Android (which may already be your default one, depending on the make and model of your phone). Gboard is also available for iOS, but you don’t get the same custom emoji feature included. You are quite restricted in the sort of emojis you can create though, even on Android.
First, tap the emoji button to the left of the space bar, then pick an emoji you want to use as the ‘base’ of your new creation—you’ll then see suggestions above the keyboard, usually mash-ups of existing emoji (like a monkey with specs). Not all emojis will generate suggestions, but a lot of them do.
Your mashed-up emoji gets sent as a sticker, but it’ll work in just about every app out there. You can also create customized stickers that look like you, just like you can create Memoji on iOS. Tap the sticker icon above the keyboard, then the plus icon, then the Add button next to Minis to let Gboard take a photo of you and turn it into a cartoon sticker. This feature works on iOS too.
Slack provides perhaps the best custom emoji experience, letting you create all kinds of bespoke graphics that can be dropped into conversations on any platform, just like real emojis. However, this is all contained in Slack of course—your customised emojis can’t live anywhere else.
In Slack on the web, click the emoji button in a channel or a conversation, then choose Add Emoji—if you don’t see the button, whoever runs your Slack channel has disabled the feature for underlings like you. You’ll be asked to upload a new picture, which can be a JPEG or a GIF, and give it a name. Obviously be sensible about what you upload, because images need to be simple and clean to look good squashed down to emoji size.
Everyone in your workspace can use your new emoji, via the Slack icon on the main emoji panel—it can be dropped into lines of text, added as a reaction, and so on. Your emoji will show up inside Slack on the desktop and on mobile, though only the desktop and web apps give you the option of adding new emojis.
Apple has been enabling the use of custom emojis for years now with the Memoji sets you can make of yourself—even if they are technically more like stickers. If you haven’t yet dived into the world of Memoji (and Animoji), tap the cartoon face icon above the default keyboard (or the App Store icon if you can’t see it), then the three dots to get started.
There are a whole host of mini-apps for iMessage that blur the line between stickers and emojis, and let you drop all kinds of customized shapes and pictures into your chats. If you tap on the App Store icon above the keyboard you can see what’s available, including galleries of arty emojis and stickers based on popular movies.
Of course there’s nothing to stop you dropping in an image you’ve made yourself, into iMessage or any other messaging app, though it’s not really true to the spirit of emojis—it’s more like just sending a picture. If you tap the Photos icon on the left of the toolbar row above the keyboard, you can import any picture you like from your library.
You can’t, strictly speaking, add custom emojis to Facebook Messenger, but you can choose which emojis you can apply as reactions to messages. Long press on a message on mobile, tap the plus button, and you can choose from any of the standard emojis as a reaction—you’re not just limited to the usual selection.
You can also change the emoji used as the default response as a standalone message—by default it’s a thumbs up, to the right of the text input box. On the desktop, click Change Emoji; on mobile, tap the info button (top right) then Emoji. Anyone in the conversation can access this setting, and everyone has to use the same emoji once it’s been set.
Again there’s the option to drop in stickers and images, which you can make quite emoji-like if you put in some effort—but you don’t get the same level of control as you do with something like Slack. Tap the relevant button next to the text input box on desktop or mobile to drop something in.
As we’ve said, aside from petitioning Unicode to add a new emoji character, when it comes to adding custom emojis inside an app you’re really just dropping in emoji-like stickers. Slack does the best job of making these tiny images work like real emojis, so you can at least keep your colleagues entertained.
For other apps, on desktop and mobile, you can try dropping in small emoji-like images. Emoji Kitchen has a good emoji creator that’s good for this—you can combine two emojis together and then export the results as a PNG file you can send to just about any app. PiZap is another online tool that offers even more flexibility. If you have a text expander, like Alfred on macOS, you can even set it up to drop the images into other apps as you do in slack.
Presumably, if you need a custom emoji, it’s to show something very specific that isn’t covered by the thousands already available—in which case you might be best turning first to your image editor of choice. If you’re in need of something animated, you can make a GIF out of just about anything you like.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)