A mysterious new emoji popped up in the developer preview of iOS 9.1 when it landed last month. Apple dubbed it “eye-in-speech-bubble,” and that’s exactly what it looked like.

anti-bully emoji

What was still unclear at the time was what purpose the new emoji served. Shortly after it appeared, a designer named Erik Veland used the text-to-speech feature to discover that the emoji is described aloud as “eye in speech bubble representing anti-bullying campaign.” Mystery solved! Except … why did Apple put an anti-bullying emoji in its unreleased iOS update? How did Apple foresee people using it? And what campaign was it representing, exactly?

Turns out most of the answers have nothing whatsoever to do with Apple.

The Ad Council launched the anti-bullying campaign, called I Am A Witness, this morning. The Ad Council are the same folks who brought us Smokey the Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog, and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk”. That new emoji? It wasn’t really Apple’s idea. The original eye-in-speech bubble was designed by Angie Elko and Patrick Knowlton of San Francisco ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. It looks like this:

I Am A Witness Logo Lockup 10.19.15 FINAL

The idea for I Am A Witness grew out of The Bully Project Mural, a 2014 collaboration between Adobe, The Bully Project, and Behance that encouraged people to share their experiences with bullying through art and stories. The Ad Council flips that equation by targeting those who witnesses bullying.

“Me and Angie were talking about how we could empower kids to go from passive to active,” says Hanna Wittmark, the art director at Goodby. “We wanted to help them stand up and do something.”

A 2013 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control found that nearly 15% of U.S. students had been bullied electronically in the past year. Evidence suggests cyberbullying can be uniquely harmful to its victims, who are often bullied in person as well, and can struggle to escape the 24/7 abuse facilitated by modern technology. Research has shown that peer intervention can help curb bullying, but an investigation published in 2011 by the Pew Research Center found that ninety percent of teens ages 12-17 who had witnessed some form of online cruelty said they’d ignored mean behavior on social media. More than a third reported doing so frequently.

To create what it hopes will be an effective campaign, the team wound up talking with a lot of kids. What they heard over and over was that teens who saw their peers being bullied usually avoided speaking out, for fear of being bullied themselves. But these same kids said they would be more inclined to speak up if they saw others do so.

Elko and Knowlton used this feedback to create a symbol for the campaign that kids could use to make a statement against bullying and show support for its victims. They started with the phrase “I am a witness,” recognizing not only the potential for visual and homonymic play between “I” and “eye,” but also the symbolic significance of a watchful gaze. When they first considered the iconography they wanted to use, Elko says they explored “thousands of ideas of what an eye could look like.” Eventually, “we realized an eye alone was too passive. We wanted that active state, which is how we settled on the eye inside a speech bubble.”

The power of eye contact is something psychologists have recognized for years. “There is substantial evidence that brief exposure to images of eyes—including even highly stylized images such as those used in [the I Am A Witness campaign]—increases prosocial behavior and decreases antisocial behavior,” says UCLA research Daniel Fessler, who has studied the impact that images of eyes can have on human behavior. In this way, he says, it’s reasonable to expect that the symbol will “impact both bullies and witnesses, and thus is a good choice for this campaign.”

“It’s a powerful symbol,” says Wittmark. “It says ‘I see this, and I’m speaking up. I’m doing something about it.’”

An Unprecedented Campaign

Apple appreciated the symbol, too. “When we first asked about bringing this emoji to the official Apple keyboard, they told us it would take at least a year or two to get it through and approved under Unicode,” says Wittmark. The company found a way to fast-track it, she says, by combining two existing emoji. As Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge explains in an analysis posted to his website, Apple’s new symbol combines the “eye” emoji with the “left speech bubble” emoji, by virtue of something called a “zero width joiner.”

If that makes no sense to you, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

“When Apple explained to us how they made it happen, they started talking about zero width joiners and it was just way over our heads,” says Goodby copywriter Kate Baynham. But how Apple did it was inconsequential. What mattered most to the creative team, she says, was that Apple had liked the design, liked what it represented, and gone above and beyond to support the campaign.

Apple—which would tell us nothing more than, yes, the emoji exists within iOS 9.1—is not the only company aligning itself with I Am A Witness. The Ad Council has described its lineup of media, corporate, and non-profit partners as “unprecedented.” And the campaign does have a deep bench: Adobe, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, Whisper, Kik, and Google have signed on to help kids broadcast the symbol on as many frequencies as possible. Anyone not running iOS 9.1 can download the I Am A Witness app, available on the App Store and Google Play, which includes a keyboard developed by Snaps, the mobile messaging platform of Hillary-Clinton-emoji-keyboard fame.

That keyboard gives kids access to a range of stylized logos, gifs, and “stickers” that convey short statements like “Chill Out”, “I See Bullying”, “Not Cool,” and “I Am Here”—phrases that kids who were surveyed said they would want to express, were they to lend support. “It was important to us that we avoid designing these symbols and support stickers based on our own assumptions,” says Elko. “We want the kids to own it, we want them to start the movement, we want them to take it over.”

To see that they do, the Ad Council has recruited the help of celebrities, YouTube stars, and popular Snapchat creators. The Goodby team even developed an interactive, animated video in collaboration with Academy Award-winning Moonbot Studios. It’s scored by Mark Mothersbaugh, whose recent film credits include Pitch Perfect 2, 22 Jump Street, and The Lego Movie.

“This project has just been…” says Wittmark, pausing mid-thought. “It’s for such a good cause and such a simple tool for kids to use to stand up to bullying, all of these amazing partners have worked on it with us.

“You know what it’s like?” she says. “You know when you come up with a great idea and you think ‘this is probably never, ever gonna happen’? Well, it happened here.”

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The Story Behind That Mysterious Eye Emoji in iOS