From horse instructor to fashion photographer to emoji designer, Juan Piella Sola has a well-decorated resume. We chatted with Juan about what it’s like to create emojis used by millions of people to communicate without using a single word.

From horse instructor to fashion photographer to emoji designer, Juan Piella Sola has a well-decorated resume. Although Juan has an array of experience, he always found himself returning to the one passion that he has known since childhood: drawing. Juan decided to pursue freelance design 7 years ago and quickly discovered that although passion doesn’t correlate to an easy pursuit, it does lead to a sense of freedom.

He can hardly remember a time when he didn’t love drawing. Spending most of his free time searching for inspiration to create something new, something only he was able to see. He recalls reading an interview where the interviewee exclaimed that he felt, “really lucky to be doing something that he would do for free.” That’s when Juan decided, “I want to do that also.” So he did. But the road to success wasn’t always that simple.

We sat down with Juan to learn more about the ever-changing world of design and what it’s like to create emojis, used and adored by millions of people to communicate without using a single word.

What did you do before your freelance career?

I have done so many different jobs, from a horse instructor in the United States to fashion photographer in Barcelona to working in a chocolate factory—so many things but I always came back to drawing. Drawing is the only thing I have done since I was a child. I read an interview from the Spanish writer, Alberto Vazquez Figueroa, he said that he felt really lucky being paid for something that he would do for free and I thought, ‘Okay, I want to do that also!’ I want to get paid for something that I have actually been doing for free whole life.

What drew you to become a freelance designer?

It says it all in the beginning of the word “free” – it’s the freedom that it gives you. The freedom you get from being a freelance designer is half of the salary but I prefer to get less money and keep the freedom.

Also like I said, I wanted to be paid for something I would I do for free and I also wanted to be my own boss. I want to wake up everyday and decide what I want to do with my life and especially what I want to do in my career. If you think about it, we spend most of the hours in our day sleeping and working. So, I like sleeping, I don’t have any problem with that, but I don’t want to spend 8 hours a day doing something I hate, or doing something that doesn’t make me happy. Even if it’s a job I feel okay in, for me I really need to do something that I love.

So why did you choose to do emoji designs?

I design many things but emojis are so popular and they sell so well. So my job also requires me to do research including looking into the trends to see which designs sell better. From there I try to balance between designs I like to do (even though I know they won’t sell as well, but I do them because they make me happy) and with designs I don’t like that much, but I know will sell well. All designs I do, I upload on iStockPhoto and they sell them for me.

Emoji design is a very specific market, how did you end up in that field?

I ended up doing emoji designs because I like to simplify things and they are interesting- how can a yellow circle, two dots and one line become a face? Emojis are amazing because few elements can make up a face, a human face and also, we are egocentric. We think we are the most important thing in the world so we see ourselves everywhere. In everything we create, we will see something from ourselves in that creation.

Do you think emoji’s have changed the way people communicate?

When it comes to communication, emojis are one of the fastest ways to communicate an emotion. To fully understand what is being said, you need to hear the voice, see their body language and emojis are something you can visually see.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Everywhere—talking to someone, having a coffee in the morning, watching a movie. I try not to get inspirations from drawings but looking at other places. For example music can be so inspiring. Every day I would discover a new band, and it would make me want to draw something related to the song I heard.

What are the challenges you have faced in this industry so far?

In the beginning, it was very hard because there are a lot of talented designers so you are competing with more than 7 million designs. If there is a customer looking to buy an icon set, they just need to type icon into the search and they will get 50,000 different options.

From all the jobs I have done, this one has been the most frustrating and the most discouraging. I have been doing this for 7 years and there have been many times when I thought “this isn’t working.”

As a freelancer, you spend a lot of time working alone which can be very dangerous. When you are alone you don’t get inspiration from anybody else, so you have to find ways to keep it fresh and find new projects.

How long does it usually take to create a collection?

It depends- usually I do sets that have around 20 icons. Maybe the first pack will take a couple of days to find the style that you want, but once you find the style, everything goes faster.

Also if you already have a great design, you can can adapt it to how you want and that’s the beauty of it.

What are your most memorable moments working in this industry?

It shouldn’t be about the money but I remember 3 years ago when I wasn’t making any money, I was out for dinner and I wanted to check how many designs I had sold on my phone, and I saw that I sold a design for over €1000—that day I was happy! I thought ‘maybe someday this will work’. I think that was my most memorable day.

Usually when I wake up in the morning I get so excited by ideas that I just have to turn on the computer and start drawing. I am lucky to have this job, I love this job and it’s the thing I love the most right now, so everyday is the best day of my life.

How did you end up being in Saigon?

The truth is I was not happy in Barcelona (my hometown). Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s the best city in the world but I spent too many years in the same there so I decided that it was time to go.

To be honest, I’ve always wanted to be in Saigon, Vietnam. I’ve always wanted to see how it is because I’ve seen so many movies about Vietnam. But Saigon is just the first step of a long journey. My initial idea was to come here, get back into the routine of work and enjoy life again.

Where are your favorite spots to hang out in Saigon?

I think….and I’m not joking, my favorite spot is at the Hive. There’s also an Italian restaurant close to the Hive called Pasta Fresca- I love that place.

When I first arrived in Saigon, I used to go to the main walking street in district 1 (Nguyễn Huệ street) everyday. I love that street and I could just walk there everyday!

After living in a small town, to be able to travel around with your motorbike around the streets to see so many people with a lot of activities is cool.

There are so many things to discover and I really love the small alleys of Saigon. They are amazing with different stories behind them.

Where do you see this going in the future?

I’m not sure, but I think about this all the time. Right now, I’m working to do other things like illustration, but design will never disappear, it’s everywhere. There is design in everything humans create. There always has to be someone who designs things first before someone can build them.

People will always need images, and they might not always have the resources and skills to create what they have in mind.


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