I became the Google doodler by accident. In 2000, I was in the third year of a fine arts degree at Stanford University. It was the start of the dotcom boom, and, alongside my course work, I was doing some computer programming as a hobby. When I came to look for a summer job, someone told me about a small company called Google that had been started by some Stanford graduates. My friend told me they were looking for an assistant web master. I had been dabbling in creating web pages, so I sent them a résumé. After a quick interview, I was given the job.
I needed to use both my computer skills and my knowledge of visual arts for the work, so at the end of summer, they had a hard time finding a replacement with my specialist knowledge. In the end, I agreed to do the job full time.
Larry and Sergey [Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s founders] had been doing some visual experiments on the homepage. At one point they had created some random alien figures that appeared to fly across the website. They were just having fun on the company homepage. I thought it was brilliant.
Any marketing textbook will tell you that consistency with the corporate logo is key. Don’t touch the logo. It’s the number one rule. But Larry and Sergey are contrarians. They wanted to play with their homepage. The first Google doodle they did was a reference to the Burning Man Festival of 1998. The doodle was designed by both of them to notify users of their absence in case the servers crashed. Then they thought about how to move the idea on. So, in July 2000, when they said they wanted to celebrate Bastille Day, I jumped on it and offered to do the doodle. I drew a French flag and fireworks. It was my first Google doodle, and Larry and Sergey loved it.
After that, I got letters from British people irritated that they had been forced to look at the French flag on Google. I had no idea how much it was going to be noticed by users. We had some very creatively worded e-mails, along the lines of “I am not French and I don’t want to see their flag.” One ended: “I spit in your onion soup.”
Everyone at Google has a 20 per cent project: a personal, work-related but fun project that they are encouraged to work at on the side. The Google doodles became my 20 per cent project. I was not aware of the scope of what I was getting into – I had to learn about all the different holidays. I had to learn about the Welsh affection for leeks, the characters of Roald Dahl’s novels, about Guy Fawkes, dragons… and, of course, I’ve learnt how easy it is to offend people.
I did a Thanksgiving doodle with Fall leaves in November 2000, and received e-mails from Australia saying that they felt left out. It was summer out there. I don’t think they realised it was just me, one guy, doing 50 doodles a year to go out on the homepage. I thought: “Wow. People really care about these silly drawings.”
Of course, I was inundated with requests from companies wanting their merchandise to appear. I remember a movie opening – let’s just say it involved a ring – and the studio contacted me to ask if I could do a ring doodle in exchange for cash. The answer was “no” – even though it was a significant amount. There have been many other offers since, but the answer is always the same. We have never placed an advert over the Google logo. The only slight concession was a Lego doodle in 2008, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Lego brick. It was not a commercial thing. The Lego blocks have a dear place in the Google heart. Lego is loved the world over by geeks.
After a few years of my working alone, churning out the doodles, we decided it was time to hire more people. The Google doodling is still a side job now but we have a team of about five people. And that way we can change the doodles according to the country homepage. We get far fewer letters of complaint these days.
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