New Yorker cartoonist explains why he’s doing emoticon apps

Mar 4, 2011

Pat Byrnes is living the dream of all cartoonists—drawing with his sharp pen for The New Yorker. (Check his work out at “I hope to be doing it until I retire, which will be shortly after my death — which will be not so shortly after I turn 100,” he said. So what is […]

Pat Byrnes is living the dream of all cartoonists—drawing with his sharp pen for The New Yorker. (Check his work out at

“I hope to be doing it until I retire, which will be shortly after my death — which will be not so shortly after I turn 100,” he said.

So what is his next big dream? Emoticons. Yeah, Smurks emoticons for iPhone, iPad and soon Android phones.

In this exclusive interview, Byrnes explains why he followed this cheesy path as well as his views about apps and about being a  political husband. He’s married to Lisa Madigan, Illinois’ attorney general, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in the Land of Blagojevich.


Appolicious: You’re a sophisticated guy, you draw for The New Yorker, and you do emoticons…well they’re kind of cheesy, why take that path?

Byrnes: The New Yorker does favor deadpan cartoons and shuns overt mugging. But up to 90% of a statement’s emotional content in real life communication is nonverbal. Since most of my cartoons are rooted in real life, however caricatured, what was I to do but attempt to master the subtle nuance of facial expression in order to pack the biggest punch in a line in a cartoon?

But The New Yorker factors into Smurks another way too. The very idea for Smurks came from a failed attempt to pen a gag about the of digital messaging (something lame, like, “140 characters? But who has that much to say?”).

As I was realizing that I was never going to turn the corner to make that funny, I was struck with the dread that I was about to walk away from a good idea. Then, once I had started developing it, it was hard to stop.As for the cheesiness of emoticons, well, I would chalk that up to the stale, gloved handed, 1960s smiley button paradigm that is only a marginal improvement on semicolon-parenthesis. You couldn’t illustrate a very good story with standard emoticons, because the acting is too stiff, too broad. But the underlying idea of emoticons has real merit. I hope to breathe some recognizable life into the concept with Smurks.

A: What are you trying to accomplish with emoticons for iPhone and iPad? Is there competition?

B: Have you ever been misinterpreted in a text — or email or chat board — because the person you were talking to didn’t understand if you were serious or joking? Or semi-serious or appalled or confused or… Fill in the emotional blank. Of course, the answer is yes.

Writing for digital communication isn’t literature. It is extremely colloquial, like ordinary conversation, and very brief because it ain’t no picnic typing with your thumb. The biggest problem, however, is that part of your conversation is missing. The other person can’t see your face in order to understand your inflection or pick up the nuance of what you’re saying. But if you had some sort of emotional avatar that could convey your feeling concisely, you might save yourself a lot of follow-up explaining.

Helping people share their feelings better on their iPhone or iPad is the thing we are trying to accomplish. We think it just might contribute, in however small a way, to a happier, more civilized digital society.But I suppose that is the point of any set of emoticons. What makes Smurks different is, well, several things.

READ  AccuTerra is strong on trekking, weak on maps

First is that Smurks has five times as many emotional expressions as the nearest competitor. (And sometimes that still feels like not enough). Second is that Smurks arranges them in a way that is, we hope, intuitive. You have to connect somehow with your feelings to choose a Smurk. And there may be some benefit in that alone. It is less disjointed than scrolling through page after page of random menus. Third, and perhaps this is just a combination of the other two, Smurks makes choosing your expression fun. It’s a three-dimensional graphical mood map, in a way, and it can be a kick watching the emotion change fluidly like an animated face shifting expression in slow motion.


A: What is special about your emoticons? Are they the first for this medium? What is your concept behind Smurks? How many are there? Will you be producing more?

Smurks emoticons are, to borrow a word from your first question, more sophisticated than any — and all — of the others out there. Not only are they graphically styled to be more native to iPhones and derivative devices, but they are less clowny in their appearance. (Sorry, I don’t mean to slag on other products, but they don’t appear to be drawn by top drawer cartoonists, regardless of the artists’ technical proficiency. In communicating your feelings, we think sensitivity matters.)

When I heard, practically minutes after our initial release, that Smurks was already being used as a bar game where players had to match the expression, I knew that we had satisfied at least one goal. People could relate. It is a natural tendency for us to assume empathic facial expressions in close conversations. It shows that the we relate to what someone else is saying. In fact, making the same face is somehow connected to actually feeling the same feeling, which has been discovered in studies where people with Botox are slower to identify other people’s emotions — because their own faces are frozen!

So Smurks is likely the first for this medium which was specifically designed both for the medium itself and for restoring meaningful emotion to our digital contacts.There are 343 emotional expressions, plus 100 more that are either just for fun or which communicate something more material, such as, “Must have coffee,” or, “Mmm, having coffee.” Not that I’m a coffee drinker, but Steve, our Chief Propeller Head, is.And, yes, we do plan to produce more Smurks, but we didn’t want to be accused of overkill right out of the box.How have your sales been in the App Store? What do they cost?

App Store approval hit us much quicker than we expected. We were counting on at least another week to prepare some sort of “Hello, world!” announcement. So the first announcement was strictly to family and friends. The thing about Smurks 1.0  is that it allowed posting to Facebook and Twitter only. Within the first two days, we had gotten tons of feedback, which was fairly unanimous in that everybody loved it — but wanted to be able to use Smurks in text and email. So we spiked any attempt to trumpet our launch until we figured out how to offer text and email capability. Our initial sales have therefore been only from that first day’s word of mouth and number in the modest three figures. We won’t really know what Smurks 1.1 is doing for at least another month. But in the meantime, we are finally trying to get the word out in earnest.We believe that Smurks can do the most good if the cost is intentionally low. 99¢.

READ  iPhone App Video Review: Camera+

A: Will you have them for Android?

B: Yes. By the end of the year. Or sooner.

A: What do you think about apps in general?

Which would you rather have, a phone-booth-on-a-stick, or a Tricorder? The difference is all in the apps. What are your favorite apps? The one that I’ve spent the most money on is Shazam, because of all the music it has helped me to buy. And when I say me, I mostly mean my wife. But I pay the iTunes bill. I, the real me, also use Urbanspoon a lot. Flixster, Yelp, Beercompass,, Sudoku. And many more, as the situation demands.


A: Do you have an iPhone and iPad?

Our house has two iPhones, an iPad, two active Mac laptops, plus a plodding old G3 we let our six-year-old daughter use, various iPods in different sizes and shapes, my desktop Mac, and probably a few other ancillary products. I have been a Mac guy since 1985 and have probably paid for a wing on Steve Jobs’ house. Will you buy the new iPad–in white? Must pay kids’ tuition first. Is there a New Yorker cartoon in the white vs. black issue? Let me pitch that idea to (New Yorker Editor) David Remnick. But if it’s any good, he’s probably already thought of it.

A: How did you meet your wife (Illinois Attorney Gen. Lisa Madigan)?

B: I was writing cartoon gags after lunch one day, when I met this cute girl at a sandwich shop. We celebrate the anniversary of our meeting there each year without fail. What’s it like being a political husband? I’m not a political husband. I’m not very political at all. I’m simply married to a woman whose job requires her to be in politics. Sometimes it puts me in surreal circumstances, but I’m a cartoonist; surreal is already in my blood.

A: What do you think about (Illinois’ disgraced Gov.) Blago?

B: Who?

A: Will Ms. Madigan be running for governor?

B: I am not aware of my mother-in-law’s intentions in this regard. If she needs endorsements, however, her grandchildren have already proclaimed her the world’s only Perfect Person.

A: How long have you been cartooning? When did you get your first into The New Yorker?

B: All kids start out cartooning. Some of us simply never stop. In college, I was an undercover cartooning major, and aerospace was my cover story. I always intended to be a cartoonist, but in my early 20s, I withdrew for a while in order to develop my own voice. I didn’t want to end up as some middle aged guy stuck in the style and worldview he crystallized as a kid. After a few careers, hard knocks and other wacky adventures, I felt ready. That was mid-1998. Within a month or two, I broke into The New Yorker, where I hope to stay for a very, very long time.

A: Any more apps coming?

B: Any minute now.

Search for more

Howard Wolinsky

Howard Wolinsky is a Chicago freelance writer specializing in health and tech topics. He covered those beats for the Chicago Sun-Times.

    Home Apps Games