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  The do's and don'ts of Google Doodles
Pawel Pokutycki
posted on May 1, 2013 at 10:58

For almost 15 years now Google.com has been occasionally replacing its standard colourful corporate logo with the, so-called, Google Doodles, "the fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous changes, done to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists". Looking at a large archive of these images (often interactive and animated, especially in the last 3-4 years) I'm wondering what Illustration Daily and our contributing illustrators could learn from this on-line phenomenon and what Google could potentially learn from us? 

It all started in 1998 with the first doodle in honour of the Burning Man Festival. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google! (at that time the name of the company was written with an exclamation mark) wanted “to notify users of their absence in case the servers crashed” [1]. The image represented a stick figure drawing behind the letter "o".

Since then Google Doodles have been appearing on the company's home page on many seasonal occasions and holidays (both global and local), on birthdays of famous, and later also less famous artists, thinkers and inventors. Though initially predictable from the visual point of view, following the simplicity of late 90’s clip-art style, they evolved into more detailed artworks made in all kind of techniques from digital to analog, incl. vector-based graphics, 3D, painting, pencil drawing, photography and so on.

In the past few years Google Doodles were often animated and/or interactive, made in close collaboration between artists and programmers, who do not only make illustration move or respond to user’s behavior in front of the computer screen, but also check whether the technique used doesn't slow down the website's performance and is fully compatible with all existing browser versions on desktop and mobile platforms (if it isn’t they would make several different versions of the same doodle in HTML5, Flash, animated gif etc). According to Ryan Germick, the team leader, ”we are the line between entertainment, arts, technology and graphic design. Those lines are very blurry.” [2]

Google “doodlers” want people to be excited about illustration, but also about the technology behind it. Technology is what the company stands for at first place. No wonder thus that from time to time one can play a fully-working computer game like Pac-Man on Google.com, interactively explore an animated story of the science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, blow artificial air into a 3-dimensional simulation of Alexander Calder’s mobile or even generate and record one's own sounds on a Moog synthesizer. “Google Doodles should encourage curiosity, just like the search button. You click on it to find out more.” [2]

In a way Google Doodles are a perfect example of how illustration can profit from interactive technology, and how interactive technology can profit from illustration. According to Kris Hom, a technical engineer at Google, the doodles are a way to “humanize the home page.” [2] Even marketing experts notice their impact on the development of contemporary strategies in corporate design: “Google Doodles violate a long accepted tenet of brand management: that a logo must be respected and used correctly and consistently at all times. A constantly changing logo was thought to reduce brand equity. While this may be true of many brands, Google has successfully defied the orthodoxy; the Google logo has been noted for the constant interactive engagement that attracts the attention of the press as well as general public notice.” [1]
Unfortunately though, outside of an environment like Google, which is providing artists with an on-board technical support, illustrators are usually having a hard time producing interactive work for the web on their own. Especially since Apple’s rejection of Adobe Flash on iOS becoming an interactive illustrator paradoxially became more difficult today than 8-10 years ago. Alternative formats like HTML5+CSS3 and/or JavaScript – though increasingly popular today among web designers and developers (also these at Google.com) – rather scare most of the illustrators with the necessity to master elementary scripting skills and are therefore incomparably more complex and time-consuming in production. What used to take a minute in Flash without writing a single like of code, now becomes a technical struggle in sweat and tears, if not mission impossible. Next to that, most of the publishers tend to be conservative and do not want to invest much time and money in getting interactive illustration on-line. What’s in it for illustrators then? One can only hope that Google Doodles are setting up a roadmap for a change in this field; that software developers will recognize a new trend on the market and supply artists and publishers with decent tools for interactive illustration. Perhaps it will be Google itself to create such solutions.

But what else we can learn from it? Or what we can do better? How is Illustration Daily looking at Google Doodles?

Unlike most of the publishers in printed and digital media Google doesn’t reveal the names of the authors of illustrations placed on their home page. “It's not about us as individuals, it's about Google as a culture." [2] Illustration Daily, on the contrary, aims at promoting the ‘voice of the illustrator’ by placing his/her name and profile picture next to every post, and – most importantly – by expecting the personality of the author to be recognizable in the work itself, both on the level of artistic authenticity as well as ability to formulate a commentary, express an individual opinion by visual means. Despite a certain degree of freedom given to the Google Doodles team (Germick calls their decision-making process “fairly democratic” [2]), all of the illustrations published by the dotcom giant so far are rather decorative and lightweight content-wise, consequently easy to consume, never politically incorrect. It would be rather hard to imagine Google Doodles becoming subjective and confronting in any way, touch upon disturbing topics or commemorate somber anniversaries [3]. Letters or colors of Google are almost always smuggled in the illustration somehow and function as a company's watermark, automatically reducing its potential credibility to become anything more than what it is: a funny, well-designed corporate clip-art reminding us of a specific, ‘happy’ date in the calendar.

Illustration Daily has an ambition to elevate the presence and quality of (interactive) editorial illustration on-line. Though maybe at first glance our website looks just like another illustration blog, the functionality of this platform is a combination of various new media solutions related to e.g. Facebook (each illustrator has a personal account with a profile picture and own “wall”), Twitter (illustrator posts frequently with short descriptions to his/her images), Apple iOS (our blobs are like notification badges on iPhone/iPad) and... Google Doodles (source of currently relevant illustrations)! By using a clean, minimalistic layout, focusing on the actual moment in time and publishing more interactive illustrations in the nearest future Illustration Daily more or less intentionally looks to Google.com and learns a lot from it. Yet our primal driving force and belief in this project comes not from the fascination with new technology, but from the power of editorial illustration known already for decades before internet, developed in times of printed media. The ability to incorporate the heritage of meaningful, engaged, intellectually stimulating illustration into a contemporary on-line platform, to pay a tribute to it by upgrading its significance on the web, is something what Google might overlook. We certainly won’t!

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_logo#Google_Doodle
[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19192660
[3] http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2011/09/911-anniversary-google-goes-doodle-less.html

See also this extensive interview with Google Doodles team: