When we log onto the Internet, one of the first things many of us see is the Google search page – and one of the first things we notice there are the search engine’s artistic “Doodles.” It’s a simple idea, painstakingly executed.
And it was noticed by the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Borrelli, who notices the little details that often lead to great stories.
How did the story idea originate?
Well, in two ways: The first way was the way most of us see Doodles. I just admired them, their artistry, their attention to detail. But also their frequency, their eccentricity and the way Doodles were often about scientists and pioneers – Doodles had become so well done that you sort of stopped noticing they were also an exercise in branding. Then last year I was working on a profile of cartoonist Jeffrey Brown, who told me about how his book “Darth Vader and Son” derived somewhat from a Doodle that was rejected by Google after being commissioned. Brown mentioned to me that the guy who runs the Doodle team is from this area, so I contacted Ryan Germick, the head Doodler, and we talked on-and-off for a year about me visiting him in Silicon Valley. That’s how it started, sort of serendipity mixed with curiosity.
Is there a Google Doodle you’ll always remember? Martha Graham or Pac-Man?
There are so many smart, clever ones, but two jump out: The 2011 animated tribute to Freddie Mercury that, like the Maurice Sendak one they recently did, startles you because what lies behind that simple click is so ambitious and fun and full of life. My other favorite (maybe my favorite favorite) the Doodle they did for Jules Verne. It’s the Google letters with a small knob, and depending on how you move the knob, the image within the Google letters dives into the ocean or surfaces, a la “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” Incidentally, both are from the mind of illustrator Jennifer Hom (who also was the leader of the Sendak project). It’s too bad these people work mostly anonymously.
When did you decide that to tell this story correctly you HAD to go to California to see how this all worked?
That’s a good question, because this piece could be handled with a Q&A probably. And with a company like Google, you assume you will receive a bare minimum of cooperation, anyway. But they were fairly open to the story, partly because the Doodle team is so unique and what tends to be written about them is superficial and brushes right past the point that these things probably took a team and a lot of time and there’s a story behind the creation of this tiny thing so many people worldwide are seeing everyday.
But I think you have to see where they work and what the actual Doodle selection process is like firsthand because, with a home page going out to many billions every day, you know there are conversations being had that simple phone interviews would not get at. This story was also partly a way of looking at the culture of the company itself – which is famously whimsical, and whimsy has to be experienced firsthand.
Was it what you expected when you got there?
That is a very long answer, but in short: It was far more enchanted – if that’s the right word to put to a huge company that probably could become Big Brother if it wanted to. The culture of the company was exactly as offbeat as has been reported. What I was more surprised about is how relatively open the campus is. You can pretty much stroll on to it without being hassled – within reason.
One day I did notice a security guard following behind me and trying to look as though he wasn’t watching me. Like I’m going to steal their sand volleyball court! Come on! In the larger sense, the team was far closer to each other than I expected. It struck me as a few people who really like each other and have brunch together – that kind of closeness. They are also very young and very much on message when it comes to Google. I heard more than once that they weren’t “doing this for themselves, they were doing this for Google.” So sunny, and maybe ever so slightly creepy.
Do you like stories like this because of their rich pop-cultural meaning, or “just because”?
Ha! Not "just because," though "just because" has its place I suppose. I like stories about the things we take for granted that are becoming part of our lives with alarming ease (like this) or the things that are leaving our life with alarming ease (like a story I'm working on for Sunday, about a seller of well, see you Sunday).
The length of this story might seem ridiculous because of the subject, but I think anything this ingrained in the world – literally, the world – has a rich story behind it and probably even more poignant ramifications.
The risk is that no one else feels that way but you – but that’s also the challenge on writer’s end.
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