New Delhi: Dennis Hwang is the person responsible for colour in Google’s otherwise minimalist homepage. His work for the last nine years, since he joined Google Inc. as an intern in 2000, is seen by millions of people every day in the form of the search engine’s ever-morphing logo, from a washed-out watercolour nod to painter Monet to a pencil-sketched tribute to Chinese mathematician Zu Chongzhi. And that’s not even his day job.
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Hwang is an international webmaster at Google, with the famous doodles his “20% time” project, a Google philosophy that allows employees to spend one day a week working on projects that aren’t part of their usual job descriptions.
Changing script: Dennis Hwang says a doodle can take anywhere from a few minutes to days to sometimes weeks to complete; (below) a doodle in the recent Sesame Street series, which was created by a Google team. Sudhanshu Malhotra / Mint
In Delhi to announce the winners of the India leg of “Doodle 4 Google”, an international competition for schoolchildren to design an iteration of the Google logo, he spoke to Mint about the origin, process and sometimes problematic nature of the Google doodles. Edited excerpts:
How did the Google Doodles start? Were they around before you joined Google?
When I joined as an intern, [Google founders] Larry Page and Sergey Brin had started dabbling in it. The first one they created was really an “out of office” message to show their users that they were away at this festival called the Burning Man. They put a little symbol of the Burning Man next to the logo. People just loved that one. But right from the beginning, there’s always been this kind of internal turmoil, because if you read any marketing textbook—the first guideline is always “don’t touch your corporate logo”.
In the early days, they had external contractors who’d sometimes make logos, and Larry and Sergey themselves made a few, which was um…interesting. In around July 2000 they approached me, they knew I’d studied art, and said, “Hey, why don’t you give it a try?”
The first one you created was on 14 July, 2000, for Bastille Day. The ‘l’ in Google had a little French flag on it.
Yeah. Back then, Google did not have different home pages for different countries like we do now, so a lot of people from the UK actually wrote in to complain that there was little French flag on the logo. Actually, when I look back at some of these earliest ones, I cringe in embarrassment.
One of the other earliest logos we did was for Holi. I remember that I personally didn’t know anything about the festival, and one of my Indian colleagues said it would be perfect for a Google logo, with the splashes of colour.
Does doodling consume a lot of time at work for you, even though its still a “20% time” project?
It was always tight, so now there’s a team of Googlers who work on this…some of the recent ones like the Sesame Street series was actually the team that created it. I still provide creative guidance, and I manage the team whenever I can. We’ve also always had fun inviting artists to do guest doodles for us, its worked out great.
How do the doodles get made? Is there an internal approval process?
In the early days, Larry and Sergey did the emperor-style thumbs-up, thumbs-down on every logo. They’re still very much involved—they like to provide feedback if they have strong feelings about it. Not too long ago, they would even describe the design that they wanted for a particular logo. By now, we have a team, so it’s a fairly painless and informal process. We try and cover events from countries we don’t have much of a presence in as well…Vietnamese holidays, for example.
A lot of doodle ideas also come from Google users. Like with any endeavour on the Internet, is there a bias with the logos towards geeky, tech-related subjects?
Of course. But we don’t avoid it, we embrace it!
We’ve done some really geeky ones. Like when the Large Hadron Collider was being powered up in Switzerland, we did one that made fun of people’s fears that it would create a black hole. We briefly showed a timestamp when the Unix system timestamp turned 1234567890 (computers based on the Unix operating system use a coded 10-digit number). Not too many people may relate to it, but some of our closest users are computer scientists and geeks, and I mean that in a very endearing way. But I think now we try to cover innovation in every field—scientists, technology definitely, and we do many artist birthdays as well.
How long does a doodle usually take to complete?
It can take anywhere from a few minutes to days to sometimes weeks. Most of the time, it’s not actually the drawing of it that takes time. Some of the logos may look very detailed, but we work very fast. The maximum time is taken by the many countless iterations on the concept, because we get one little thing wrong about the culture and you hear from millions of people. You’ll get emails that say, ‘That looks nothing like what we eat here!’ so we’re very careful with what we depict.
Have any of the doodles been divisive?
In 2003, we did a logo with a double helix to celebrate 50 years of the discovery of DNA. Within minutes I started hearing from geneticists and scientists all around the world. They were all like, “That’s not a double helix!” thousands of emails all in caps: “PLEASE FIX IT.” I was amazed, it was two pixels of detail that they had a problem with and caught on to faster than anybody else.
Which letters in the Google logo are the hardest to work with?
The big “G” and the little “e” have gotten the least amount of action, because they’re so hard to incorporate into…well, any shape.
Do you have any favourites?
We’ve done a lot of interesting ones. We celebrated the 25th anniversary of the game Tetris in June 2009. One of the original programmers who worked on Tetris all those years ago is now a Googler—so we thought it’d be cool to celebrate that. We did one for Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, where we just changed the letters around in our logo. That was fun.
Are there particular issues or themes that the doodles avoid?
We’re constantly re-evaulating our policies with regards to what we like or not like to do. Generally, we find that the Google doodle doesn’t work very well for anything political, or anything overtly religious. Divisive issues, we stay away from. The doodle is usually light hearted, so anything serious and solemn sometimes comes across as disrespectful. It’s something we keep having internal dialogues about. It’s not an editorial stance; we’re not in a place to do that.
Do you rely on Google itself to research the doodles?
Oh yes. Google’s image search is indispensable, and I use a lot of Google Labs projects—like Google Sets—to help me organize my research.
Have you considered any independent graphic projects, outside of Google?
I’m having so much fun right now, I haven’t even thought about it!