SAN FRANCISCO — Google.com is the most visited online front door in the United States. According to Alexa, a longtime Internet statistics firm, it is also the second most visited home page in the world behind Facebook.com; roughly 40 percent of global Internet users visit Google's primary portal at least once a day. And yet, considering the culture-changing ubiquity of the Silicon Valley-based tech giant — which reported more than $50 billion in revenue last year — what a user tends to find there is famously, comically austere. It is a digital Antarctica: Sheer white for miles, no ads, no headlines, just a search bar and the Google logo.
Six letters, four colors.
Blue, red, yellow, green.
It's an image so taken for granted, a welcome so familiar, chances are you rarely consider it.
Monday, though, if you found yourself on Google.com, you noticed a tweak: Max, the wolf-costumed hero of the beloved Maurice Sendak children's classic “Where the Wild Things Are,” stomping alongside the Google logo. If you clicked the word balloon above his head, the letters in Google (muted, to mimic Sendak's palette) separated, and a globe rose. Max stepped into its curving, churning landscape and embarked on his wild rumpus, parading through perfectly rendered settings from “Wild Things,” only to be replaced with scenes from Sendak's “In the Night Kitchen” then finally, his lesser-known “Bumble-Ardy.”
Why the elaborate, intricately detailed, nearly two-minute Easter egg, an animation feat that required a handful of artists working for several months? Well, because it was Sendak's posthumous 85th birthday.
But mostly — just because.
This is called a Google Doodle, and a Google Doodle is mostly just because.
At least that's how Google regards its hundreds of often radical logo alterations, illustrations and animations that a small team of young, anonymous artists and engineers within this company of 50,000 have been turning out with increasing frequency, inventiveness and beauty. If you once blew a workday playing Google's salute to the 30th anniversary of “Pac-Man” — a spot-on replica, down to the glitches, shaped into a “Google” — these are the people to blame. Or, if you spent a few extra moments recently admiring its homage to graphic designer Saul Bass, marveling at how lovingly a tech logo can be worked into renditions of movie posters and credit sequences for “West Side Story” and “Vertigo,” these are the people to admire.
Specifically, Ryan Germick.
He is the chief doodler, the head of Google Doodle. He is 33 but looks 23. He grew up in Lake County, Ind., south of Gary. His job is putting a warm, handmade face on what often seems to be an information monolith.
On an early May evening we met in a burrito joint around the corner from his apartment in the Haight district of San Francisco, a former hippie enclave that, like many former hippie enclaves in this city, still carries the feel of a tattered, open-air '70s rumpus room. Germick has long, straight hair that hangs in sheets and a mellow vibe, which evaporated the moment he spoke, in the nervous-confident rush of a graduate student:
“Sincerely, I see the Doodle as a space on the Internet for art, inspiration, this one corner that's not sold out, not given to the pressure of clicks, free from the constraints of business demands, not meant to be my statement but Google's statement. And Google is your nerdy friend who wants to share stuff, who wants to tell you about (early computer scientist) Alan Turing and share his enthusiasm for (Austrian artist) Gustav Klimt. It's not a sales pitch, it's this little gift, and we have been incredibly conscious about keeping it that.”
And that, unquestionably, is the odd feeling you get from Google Doodles.
What began as a corporate afterthought has evolved under Germick's stewardship into an ambitious, art/tech design project — a charming, occasionally challenging global art show hiding in plain sight.
Google Doodles celebrate holidays, anniversaries, legendary geniuses (the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens) and obscure pioneers (the 154th birthday of George Ferris, inventor of the Ferris wheel). Google Doodles are eccentric (one day an interactive reminder of Mother's Day, the next, a 161st birthday salute to the inventor of the Petri dish). Google Doodles speak in an endless number of aesthetic tongues, from modernist architecture to wood carvings to comic books. The Google Doodle is international (recently, Canada got an illustration honoring the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Portugal a salute to Portugal Day). And at times, Google Doodles have been surprisingly abstract (replacing the logo with everything from “Google” in Morse code to a vaguely discernible “Google” buried within the splatter of a Jackson Pollock impersonation).
But primarily, so say the doodlers, it's art for art's sake.
It's also far more complicated — so say many branding experts, design professors and technology critics.
“I spend all my time developing brands and considering ways that brands should stick to identities,” said Tereasa Surratt, creative director for the marketing firm Oligvy & Mather Chicago, “and what Google is doing here is incredibly unorthodox, breaking every rule of consistency. They're saying, ‘We're going to use our massively influential identity to celebrate an obscure mathematician, or whomever. The placement of our colors and letters are so rooted, you don't even need to read our logo to know what you're dealing with.' And now I look forward to it.”
Said Robert Brinkerhoff, the chair of the illustration department at the Rhode Island School of Design where several doodlers graduated: “A lot of (doodles) skirt legibility, so much so that if you go to Google.com expecting that logo, they're testing your visual literacy. Which is fascinating. On the other hand, if one of the goals is, ‘Hey, we're Google, but we're not so enormous' — if they're seeking intimacy — then personalization can make a company that pervasive — which many people already think sinister things about — unsettling.”
Indeed, depending on whom you ask, the Google Doodle is clever and charming, or shrewd and charming.
Germick was both.
Asked if he thought he was humanizing a massive corporation — if he was tasked with putting a smiling face on a company that many critics believe wants to dictate the flow of information worldwide, disseminate your personal details and corroborate with censoring regimes and government spy programs, to name just a handful of the controversies that have landed at Google's doorstep recently — he shrugged in such a way that made the question sound not so much unreasonable as paranoid and cynical. Then he said something remarkable: The doodle is a new medium, being figured out.
“We have this amazing billboard,” he said, “so why not show the fully realized capabilities of a major tech company?” Then he took a big bite of burrito.
The Googleplex — the bucolic, frictionless campus of more than 30 buildings that make up Google's headquarters — is about 40 miles south of San Francisco, in Mountain View, a prototypical Silicon Valley neighborhood, not quite suburb, not entirely office park. The sky here is pale white and the air is still; the sunlight would be blinding if every street weren't so shaded, every sidewalk bordered with large trees of uniform shape and size, like rows of green champagne flutes. Driving through, you pass low, glass office buildings with modestly announced logos of familiar tech companies (Intuit, Mozilla, YouTube), and less-than-obvious tech companies with impenetrable names that offer no hint of what they do (Pixim, Egnyte).
But mostly you pass placards with that iconic Google logo.
As I waited at a corner, a Google Maps car, with its twirling rooftop camera, drove by at the precise moment I was admiring a large Google Maps location marker placed cleverly at an intersection, the digital world made physical. Across the street, at 8 a.m. on a Friday, the Google soccer fields were full of adults playing soccer, and employees wearing cargo shorts, T-shirts and backpacks walked past looking like acclimated college students. Everything appeared as though it were landscaped yesterday. And everyone who wasn't on foot rode bikes — four-color, Google-themed bikes. Many building entrances seemed marked by thickets of these twee, kaleidoscopic bicycles. The few cars parked nearby appeared to be either Priuses or Chevy Volts, with long cords running from the front ends to complimentary charging stations.
At the hub of the campus is a massive office quadrangle, and running between is a courtyard with a sand volleyball court, a T. rex skeleton (complemented by pink flamingos) and a sculpture park. How typically Google to have a David Lynch statue, I thought, until I realized, no, it's Lloyd Bridges. Of course. Also nearby was a Google bowling alley, a Google climbing wall and several Google swimming pools.
Later, putting this in perspective, Steven Levy, tech writer and author of “In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives,” told me that Google's culture has become “institutional whimsy.” Ken Auletta, who covers media for The New Yorker and wrote “Googled: The End of the World As We Know it,” said: “They are an adolescent company. So they get in trouble, with questions of privacy, the aesthetics of Google glasses. Like Microsoft in the '90s, they have an image problem. But its culture has remained consistent, and the doodle is consistent with that.” He said that, businesswise, you'd have to be naive not to regard the Google Doodle as clever marketing, “but do I think that's the motivation of the artists?”
The doodle office is on the ground floor of Building 41, kitty-corner from Google's search-function team in Building 43. Doodlers don't have traditional cubicles so much as spaces with drawing tables, walls covered in illustrations and a “doodle thinking corner,” an alcove canopied by a bedsheet, outfitted with beanbag chairs and holiday lights. There are 10 artists and three engineers, not a typical mix for an engineer-driven company heavy with computer scientists.
“It's strange to be a creative person in a tech place, an art-school graduate surrounded by people who make jokes about coding,” said Betsy Bauer, a 24-year-old doodler.
At the front of the office is Germick's workspace, which, when I was there, was surrounded by a low metal fence to stop his dog (a small, sandy-colored rescue mutt named Cleo) from escaping. We met and headed to a meeting about the Sendak doodle, Germick carrying Cleo and a bag of freeze-dried dog treats. We passed a window that looked out on a large sculpture of a shark fin.
“Every week it's something,” he said. “Shark fins, dinosaurs — they just show up and there's really no explanation or memo sent out about it.”
In the meeting room, as Germick fed his dog (which, incidentally, wore a cone around its neck), engineer Corrie Scalisi and artist Jennifer Hom slid in across the table.
“How's it going?” Germick asked. Scalisi said they were 65-percent done, “but then we're, ‘Oh, we should totally add that,' which will make it 50 percent.”
Hom flipped around her laptop to show what they had.
“I am extremely worried we're going to make people dizzy,” Scalisi told Germick, who watched the animation spin.
“I want to scratch it like a record,” he said.
Is that possible? I asked.
“Corrie?” Hom asked.
Scalisi smiled warily.
“You're so mad at me now,” Hom said.
It was possible, Scalisi explained, but you don't want to overwhelm people with too many options. You also “don't want to give the users this amazing art that takes five minutes to load, slows everything, then they forget why they were there,” she said. Hom added: “Yeah, we are still a search engine.”
Germick said afterward one reason the process has become arduous is partly because they weigh a practical need to get people off the home page as quickly as possible against, well, what's possible at a company with seemingly unlimited resources and ambitions. (As Ken Krayer, a Michigan-based design consultant, put it: “Google has so much money it doesn't have to ground its whims in real products, like everyone else.”) Plus, being Google, they get to work with almost whomever they want; Germick has wrangled doodles from artists as varied as Jeff Koons, Shepard Fairey, Takashi Murakami and DC Comics' Jim Lee.
“I was kind of amazed how much work they put in this little thing,” said Blakeley White-McGuire, a principal dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company in New York, which received a doodle to celebrate Graham's 117th birthday in 2011. Several months before, White-McGuire danced for the artists, who recorded and animated each of her movements, then selected music and costumes iconically associated with Graham, creating an “incredibly compressed and detailed history of the signatures of this company,” White-McGuire said.
Last year, for a doodle of Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, the team briefly considered hiring an architect to build a scale model in Mountain View.
Said Lynn Caponera, who was Sendak's assistant for decades and now manages his estate: “They wanted to know what Maurice's favorite foods were, about his love for dogs. It was really clear to me the people who make these doodles are not Google paper pushers. They're artists. Which is good, because Maurice was the least technological person ever. He called my computer a ‘fax machine,' but when he was researching, he would say ‘Google me owls' or ‘Google me some fish.' Google was the only computer thing he liked.”
The Google Doodle began soon after the company was founded in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin; they were heading to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada and wanted to acknowledge that they would be out of the office. So they placed a Burning Man stick figure inside the second “o” of the logo. During those first couple of years the doodle didn't advance much beyond the level of clip art, not until Dennis Hwang, then a Stanford University undergraduate majoring in art and computer science (now a Google designer), joined the company in 2000. His first doodle was for Bastille Day, and within a few years Hwang was duplicating “Google” in honor of Andy Warhol's 74th birthday, abstracting Google into Braille and creating doodles for Google's international home pages (now a regular part of a doodler's job). But the art itself remains modest.
In fact, though Google Doodles became a fairly regular occurrence (the company even patented the Doodle in 2001), not until Germick arrived in 2006 — for his first full-time job — did the format reveal its ambitions.
Germick grew up in a “creative family, the kind that gave performances to each other instead of gifts.” His father ran a family-owned pharmacy, his mother was a teacher. He fell in love with art watching Bob Ross on PBS (for whom he created a doodle last year, to celebrate the art teacher's 70th birthday) and studied illustration at Parsons design school in New York under Frank Olinsky, co-creator of the MTV logo. But his most formative experience was in 2000, learning the art of sign painting in India, “where everywhere you looked there were portraits that gave human warmth to images of everyday stuff and people.”
For his first couple of years at Google, Germick split his time between creating doodles and serving as an all-purpose in-house illustrator (among his ubiquitous creations is the tiny directional man on Google Maps). Then, in late 2008, the doodle team became a division. The following year, his boss, Marissa Mayer (now head of Yahoo), encouraged him to try interactive doodles, ambitious doodles, starting with a week of “Sesame Street” doodles.
“She installed commandments, that it should be this nerdy thing, about positive things, it was not a commercial space …,” Germick said. In 2011, his “Pac-Man” Doodle cemented the team's importance within Google.
“I was personally anxious we would break the home page with that,” said Marcin Wichary, who co-designed the “Pac-Man” doodle and left Google last year. “But Ryan wanted so much more out of this: We talked a lot about how doodles didn't have to be a corporate handshake, how they might even become like this bridge between art and technology.” Which led to a playable Les Paul-guitar doodle, a Moog synthesizer doodle, a live-action Charlie Chaplin doodle (Germick played the sheriff), doodles in a dizzying range of styles, aping cave paintings, Christmas lights, Latvian textiles.
“If you look at how film developed, how in the first 15 years nobody really knew what to do with it, how it took 50 years to do something serious, it's not a bad comparison,” said journalist Clive Thompson, who has a book (“Smarter Than You Think”) coming this fall about the ways technology is improving life. “Certainly with interactive doodles, Google is testing ways of communicating online we don't get yet. These are the early days. Or, in the long run, it could be like any corporate-sponsored art: ‘Brought to you by Philip Morris.'”
Indeed, despite following Mayer's no-advertising doodle policy — and Germick said he is pitched regularly by record companies, movie studios, even Google's community outreach divisions — Germick wrestles with the thin line between promotional and celebratory, doodles born from admiration for an innovator and doodles that could be marketing. The Jim Henson Company successfully pitched a doodle celebrating Henson's 75th birthday, but a “Star Wars”-centric Father's Day doodle from Chicago cartoonist Jeffrey Brown, commissioned by Germick, was eventually deemed too commercial, too associated with an occasionally violent sci-fi property, and scrapped. (Don't cry for Brown: Google let him take its idea, which he turned into a pair of best-selling novelty books, “Darth Vader and Son” and “Vader's Little Princess.”)
Presenting art to a global audience is a sensitive daily tightrope walk.
“We stay away from partisan dates, political stuff,” Germick said. “We have to think of all the ways a doodle could be misconstrued — I challenge you come up with a tasteful way to doodle about the Titanic.” Yet in early spring, Google took a fair amount of media criticism for running a doodle honoring farm-worker activist Cesar Chavez's 86th birthday but not, on the same day, an Easter doodle. Which is what happens when a huge company is “not thinking broadly enough and having a random policy about what it celebrates,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, an online trade publication for the search engine business.
A doodle backlash is inevitable, said John Bowers, chair of the visual communication design department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Doodles appropriate images, Google has a perception as a company that controls information and is only getting bigger — regardless of the (doodlers') intent, people will read into that,” he said. He noted that he worked in San Francisco for corporate branding consultant Landor Associates, specifically the team that tried to reframe the identity of BP as an environmentally minded petroleum company. “Your cynical side says, ‘They're not green in any way,' but then, ‘Wait, a company is not even supposed to try to appear decent?'”
After the Sendak meeting I went to a spitballing idea meeting. Germick divided the team in two and asked one half to come up with a water-based doodle and the other a landmark-based doodle. The groups discussed, in no particular order: aqueducts, Thai water festivals, a doodle based on the Venturi effect (which stops the gas pump when your tank is full), Evel Knievel, bison, elk, wolves, non-Newtonian fluids, the national parks, Evel Knievel again (jumping over a Google Maps image of your house), the Grand Canyon (with a small “Google” at the bottom), the inventor of water parks, the Hudson River School of art, landscape artist Thomas Moran, Jell-O, Ansel Adams, Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful and jumping the shark.
“One thing we get a lot of requests for is a doodle for Google's science fair,” Germick said.
No one replied.
Then someone asked: “You mean, the (science fair) project would have to look like the logo?”
And someone replied: “Yeah, like ‘I cured cancer!' And the solution spells ‘Google!'”
“So, then,” Germick said, “too sold-out?”
Replies were noncommittal, which seemed to mean, yes, too sold-out, even for a doodle for a Google property. Not even “The Internship,” the new Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughn comedy set at Google, got a doodle. (Cartoonist Scott McCloud, who has consulted for Google Doodle, said the doodle team's work has been “thoughtful and magical, and it's funny because if they get bad you know someone's clamping down on them — they are surely as innocent as it gets at Google, the canary in the coal mine.”)
After the meeting broke up I walked over to artist Mike Dutton, who was working on a Mother's Day doodle: a Google-shaped machine that allowed users to print out an actual piece of art to hang on a refrigerator. He wore sneakers, no socks, his jeans rolled up Tom Sawyer-style. He explained that the job is “about balancing personal taste with what whatever you are celebrating while also co-branding.” He was very earnest and considered. He showed me how, for this project, the team made real artwork with yarn and boxes of macaroni and buttons and then painstakingly re-created each piece in the doodle. A week later, on Mother's Day, I tried it. The machine offered 27 different whimsical pieces of refrigerator-ready art, none of which had anything in common other than the word “Google” embedded somewhere. It worked perfectly.
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter @borrelliCopyright © 2015, RedEye