Drawing insight into Google's Doodles

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

“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.

cborrelli@tribune.com | Twitter @borrelli
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