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)

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.”

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