Drawing insight into Google's Doodles

  • Pin It

Ryan Germick, the head of Google Doodle, explains some his team's greatest hits. (Posted on: June 11, 2013)

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?”

It's not.

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.

  • Pin It

Local & National Video

Local & National Video