The skateboard emoji finally exists.
Kooks on Twitter have been whining for one for the past couple years, but it’s not something most skateboarders feel strongly about one way or another. Sure there’s critics, but even the bitter Pals on the SLAP message board didn’t object.
The lack of uproar is in part credited to Tony Hawk, who advised on the design. But it’s still remarkable that most of these tech platforms, which are obviously not run by skateboarders, didn’t completely butcher the task of representing skateboards.
It all started when Jaron Heard, a data visualist in Oregon, listened to a tech podcast where Jennifer 8. Lee, vice-chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, talked about the process of making emojis.
Unicode is the group that maintains a digital database of unique numerical codes for every text character in every language. They also manage the codes for emojis, and their Emoji Subcommittee decides which emojis will exist. They haven’t approved anything more offensive than the middle finger, but anyone can follow their guidelines and submit a proposal.
So in November 2016, Heard sent Unicode a proposal for a skateboarder emoji, modeled loosely after the snowboarder and surfer emojis.
Heard, who himself skates, told me he submitted his proposal because he thought it was odd that no skateboarding emojis existed yet. He included a reference image for the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee to consider, a silhouette of a skateboarder doing some generic flip trick, which he admitted wasn’t perfect, but was better than other Google Image results for “skateboarder.”
Heard considered mocking up a more finished design, possibly of a skateboarder doing an ollie, but he knew whatever he sent wouldn’t be the final design, so he settled for the silhouette he found online. “I figured that if they were to use anything from it, at least that was not totally terrible,” Heard told me. “It had the right kind of skateboard.”
Unicode eventually approved Heard’s proposal but decided to make only the skateboard. Adding people into an emoji requires more design work to create the five skin tone varieties typically required, and less-involved designs are easier to approve and roll out. Unicode then notified all the platforms (i.e. Apple, Android, Google, Twitter, etc.) that they would need to design their versions of the skateboard emoji.
In February 2018 the main emoji reference site, Emojipedia, released their skateboard emoji. But it looked bad, like a wonky contraption that should have died in the ‘80s.
Joshua Jones, the designer at Emojipedia who created their initial model, admitted it was outdated. “The initial rendering was meant to convey a more cartoony, toy-like board,” Jones told me over email. “It was partially inspired by a heavy plastic board I had when I was a kid. It was a fond memory, but definitely a poor choice for today’s serious skateboard community!”
But the day that design became public, Tony Hawk happened to see it and responded to say it needed to be updated. Jeremy Burge, Emojipedia’s Chief Emoji Officer, agreed, so he got in touch with Hawk to fix it. “It’s not my mission in life, but I thought it was a glaring omission with all of the updates they put out there,” Hawk said. “You have a scooter and tricycles and everything else. It just seemed obvious to me.”
I asked Hawk if he was bummed that scooters got an emoji before skateboards, but he just said he was “baffled, not bummed.” He said his own emoji habits are “pretty mundane,” and his most used ones include the camera, the surfer, and the shaka. But he also added that he uses the black heart — “That’s usually my texts to my wife. And the money flying away.”
While they were on the phone one day, Hawk sent Burge a picture of his own board. Within a week Jones came up with a new design — popsicle-shaped, modern hardware, and a standard griptape cut — modeled directly after Hawk’s board.
“My skateboard isn’t necessarily the standard street skateboard, but it’s a lot closer than that ‘80s Walmart board they had.”
Although Hawk had joked online about the skateboard emoji “be[ing] more relevant than skateboard Olympics,” he doesn’t consider it to fundamentally change how people perceive skateboarding. “I think it’s just a better representation. I don’t think it’s the best. I think the best would’ve been a person on a skateboard, [but] I do feel like it was a good compromise,” Hawk said. “My skateboard isn’t necessarily what the standard street skateboard is, but it’s a lot closer than that ‘80s Walmart board they had.”
While Emojipedia set a good example for the skateboard emoji, and one that major emoji platforms like Apple, Google, and Samsung have more or less followed (minus Samsung’s missing bolts), you may notice other interpretations floating around. Microsoft’s skateboard is more reminiscent of an elongated, blue basketball, and Twitter’s looks as cartoonish as Bart Simpson’s board, in a bad way.
These outliers exist because Unicode doesn’t enforce how platforms design their emojis. “Emojis work similarly to any other character on the keyboard, like punctuation or letters or numbers,” Burge told me over email. “Just like Unicode doesn’t tell any company how they should design the letter ‘A’ they also don’t tell vendors how to design an emoji.”
As much as I’ve enjoyed skateboards being left out of the emoji world as a sign that we still entertain some outsider status, I’m glad the skateboard emoji was ultimately born from and honed by skateboarders.
“I don’t know if I was the only reason it changed, but I feel like it could’ve gone into that terrible toy version and we would’ve been stuck with it,” Hawk said. “Now the world is stuck with my board and 60mm wheels.”