At first glance, stickers are easy to dismiss. They’re small, often silly. A miniature image of a sloth surfing a pizza slice doesn’t necessarily prompt deep artistic contemplation. But each image is in fact a microcosm of expression, packing an emotional punch into an illustration no bigger than a thumbprint.
Last December, Google art director Jennifer Daniel moderated a discussion between sticker illustrator Domitille Collardey, Anyways art director and sticker commissioner Alice Moloney, and Google design producer Emily Meinhardt. The quartet discussed sticker inspiration, the importance of character development, and the process of creating more than 500 custom stickers for Google Allo. Along the way, they revealed a few fascinating truths about this tiny art form.
Top row: Google Allo stickers from Drama Llama by Ding Ding, Stee-vee by Ian Jepson, and Worst Day Ever by Marylou Faure. Bottom row: Google Allo stickers from Gerald the Jurassic Giant by Christopher Delorenzo, Pudding the Cry Baby by Gemma Correll, and Cool Beans by Kate Prior.
Stickers aren’t emojis
While they’re similarly embedded in messaging apps, stickers communicate in a way that’s different from emoticons, text, photos, or GIFs. They’re detailed illustrations and animations of characters caught in a distinct moment of feeling. Stickers are surprisingly complex, containing layers of meaning and abstraction that must be immediately understood.
Alice Moloney: We tried to take the learnings from basic forms of illustration and start from there. For example, pedestrian signage has to communicate immediately and there’s no room for error. Also how illustration is used for personalization and self expression. Patches on your jacket, badges, physical stickers covering your pencil case.
Domitille Collardey: It’s all about a moment. If you see a face on the screen, you tend to relate to it more than words. You want to look at the animation and get it right away. It’s a snapshot, not an action unraveling with a punchline.
Emily Meinhardt: If you have a sticker on your phone, it’s showing what you feel. It’s showing your core emotions and what you’re doing. Stickers are in your hand, they’re the size of your thumb. They’re designed to be for you.
Alice: Photographic evidence is truth. Illustration is subjective. It will always withhold some element of truth that forces the viewer to fill in the gaps. If you can create an image that sticks with someone and they inject meaning into it, you’ve done something amazing.
Top row: Google Allo stickers from Hooray for Everything by Rob Flowers and Party Squad by Domitille Collardey. Bottom row: Google Allo stickers from Cool Beans by Kate Prior, Lethargic Bliss by Christopher Delorenzo, and Party Squad by Domitille Collardey.
The best stickers aren’t funny or pretty, they’re real
Stickers can embody nuanced situations and mental states. Google’s sticker packs have images that could never work as emojis—a twerking yellow bull or a giant pink dinosaur crying as he hugs a skeleton. Stickers often work best when conveying feelings or moments that might otherwise be sensitive or difficult to discuss. For instance, Domitille Collardey’s sticker set, Party Squad, contains a range of scenes from a night out—from all-out revelry to day-after remorse.
Emily: Even if the topic is disgusting or the message is sad, that’s not a problem. We wanted to create for this vast pool of expression. Stickers are about real life and authentic human experience.
Domitille: I was pretty surprised by what I could get away with. I put two butts in, there’s a naked sticker and it stayed. So I’m happy.
Alice: With Domatille’s sticker set, yes there’s a lot of drinking, but partying with friends means so many things to so many people. There’s that moment when you’re getting dressed and deciding on your shoes, and there’s that moment where you’re eating a taco at the end of the night. Not all of it involves booze.
Emily: Swear words are a part of communication, and we had to consider how to bring them into the product. ‘FML’ is a great example. It still allows for expression. People get it. And this approach actually makes it more clever and more interesting to use than a straightforward depiction.
Clockwise from left: Google Allo stickers from Lethargic Bliss by Christopher Delorenzo, Stee-vee by Ian Jepson, Emo Ballz by Jiro Bevis, Lulu + Jaz by Lavanya Naidu, Fun-der the Sea by Mauro Gatti and Stefano Meazza, and Busy Dogs by Jean Jullien.
Stickers must balance the universal and the unique
Like icons, stickers have to appeal to people across cultures and locations. But unlike simpler symbols, they must also express unique human moments. Complex character development allows stickers to split the difference between being too hyper-specific and overly generic. The challenge is complicated further by Allo’s reach in countries with different cultural touch points and lived experiences.
Emily: Love is universal. Laughter is universal. The way you make it specific is the art. The example I always like to use is this: ‘LOL’ is something that’s often said in a chat. But Batman wouldn’t say ‘LOL.’ That’s not how he laughs. Character development is actually a tool to say something in a unique and original way.
Alice: One sticker set is not going to tick every box and appeal to every single type of person. We art direct around 15 sticker sets at a time, and we’re always aware of whether they contain that core level of emotion and a variety of phrases that will appeal to a lot of people.
Domitille: For me it’s all about finding that balance between the universal and unique. So you want to talk about a universal feeling of love, but you have to make it specific. A lot of the details in Party Squad are specific things that I’ve done. Someone is more likely to relate if I put in a bit of myself.
Google Allo stickers from Prem Pyare by Sajid Wajid.
Emily: When we set out to create more localized stickers, authentic to other regions of the world, we collaborated with outside agencies who have connections to local artists. They zero in on slang, regional phrases, and pop culture references that we couldn’t tap into. The Prem Pyare set visually references a singer-songwriter star from the ’70s in India. Even if our millennial audience doesn’t immediately identify who this is, they know the haircut. They know it’s cheesy. I would never be able to suggest that to an artist. The Brazil stickers are interesting because of the slang. The Say What You Mean set is specific to what people would say in São Paulo, whereas the beach set, Mari by the Sea, would apply more to people in Rio who live by the beach.
Usually we know what the artist is trying to say and we can steer them. For example, make the cheeseburger more cheeseburger-y! But with some of these local references, it’s harder for us to give the right direction because we just don’t know what it is. We had no idea what to do with the cheese-on-a-stick in Mari by the Sea. We all looked at it and thought, What is this? Eating grilled cheese on the beach sounds really messy. But sure enough, when we’re in Rio, there are men walking up and down the beach with these little grills ready to grill your cheese on a stick.
Left: Google Allo stickers from Mari by the Sea by Daniel Semanas. Right: Google Allo stickers from Say What You Mean by Florence Dagostini.