Ryan Germick, a designer and illustrator for Google, doesn’t have much time for boring stuff like rules. “We don’t use handbooks or focus groups,” he says . “All we want to do is something as creative and fun as possible for as many people as possible.”
Germick leads the Google Doodle team: artists and engineers who play with the search engine logo by introducing date-specific illustrations, often in the form of interactive games or puzzles, to mark cultural, artistic or historical events.
Conventional marketing wisdom has it that a company’s logo should be consistent. Which is why, when Google started tampering with its instantly recognisable four-colour logo in 1998, some thought the company had lost its marbles.
Today, however, the Google Doodle has evolved into a global showcase for beautiful illustration fused with creative technology. The artists responsible can display their work to a world audience while the rest of us enjoy a few seconds of thought-provoking inspiration when we log on. The Doodlers have marked a range of eclectic events – from the frivolous (the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who) to the profound (an interactive animation to show how Foucault proved the Earth rotated on its axis).
Germick, speaking by phone from Google HQ in Mountain View, California, where he’s worked since 2006, says: “We’re grateful [people] come to our homepage, and if we can give them 30 seconds of messing around before they go on with their day, that’s great.”
He leads a team of 10 illustrators who have regular brainstorming sessions. Google staff and members of the public are encouraged to email their thoughts. Once a theme has been decided, it can take months to bring it to fruition with the help of Google engineers. When Google commemorated the dancer Martha Graham in 2011, for instance, they asked the principal dancer at the Martha Graham Dance Company to perform for them so they could record and animate her movements. In 2012 they briefly considered hiring an architect to build a scale model of a Mies van der Rohe building for what would have been his 126th birthday. And last year, in celebration of the children’s author Maurice Sendak, Google spoke to Sendak’s long-time assistant to find out about everything from his favourite foods to his love of dogs.
“It’s a challenge we relish,” says Matthew Cruikshank, the only British Doodler in the team, who studied animation at Bournemouth College before being headhunted and decamping to the Googleplex two years ago. “We’re aware that we have to make a Doodle global, so we can’t use language that wouldn’t make sense in one territory, and it almost becomes a series of graphic symbols.
“For the Doctor Who animated game [Cruikshank led the design team] we had lots of ideas and diluted them down to three or four of the most powerful aspects. We wanted the Daleks, and to get across the way the Doctor metamorphosed, and that became the lives in the game. So you never died, you just kept regenerating.”
For Cruikshank, the key to the popularity of the Doodle is that “it shows the human behind the machine”. The first ever Doodle was developed when the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin went to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert in 1998 and tinkered with the logo to show they were out of the office. The idea caught on, and now the Doodlers have put their innovative spin on everything from Freddie Mercury (a video accompanied by the 1978 Queen hit Don’t Stop Me Now) to Jules Verne (the logo adapted to show the view from a submarine, inspired by Verne’s classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea), and the tenor Luciano Pavarotti, whose animated likeness replaced the “L” on the Google logo for one day in 2007.
The office at the heart of this operation is energetic, irreverent and young – the average Google Doodler is in their 20s or early 30s with a background in graphic design or coding. Staff can bring their dogs into work. There are currently three canine team-members. “We certainly have lots of noise and chaos and multiple dogs,” says computer engineer Corrie Scalisi, who co-designed a live Turing machine with 12 interactive programming puzzles to mark Alan Turing’s 100th birthday. “But you can also buckle down and bounce ideas off people. It’s dynamic.”
Scalisi likes being part of a team that is 50% female: “Not only am I not feeling like a minority any more but we’re launching many more Doodles featuring many more women in them.”
And the dogs? They get a role too: Scalisi’s miniature husky provided some of the sound-effects for the Doctor Who animation. “It gets really interesting with three dogs,” says Germick. “We have one meeting going on above the table and another underneath.” There hasn’t yet been a Google Doodle marking Lassie’s birthday. But it’s surely only a matter of time.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010