Ryan Germick and friends are using one of the world’s most visible forums to educate and entertain the masses — one insightful Doodle at a time.
Let’s face it: Google’s home page — the most-visited website on the planet — is a surprisingly vanilla place, especially for a company known for its creativity. Take away the six letters, and Google.com is as colorful as a polar ice cap and about as exciting as the Dewey Decimal System.
But then a Google Doodle unexpectedly appears, like an amiable photo-bomber, and suddenly the world seems like a better place. The winter whitescape melts into glorious spring. People know all the answers on Cash Cab. David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox gives Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees a bear hug. And Ryan Germick and his team of Doodlers have once again worked a minor miracle: morphing monolithic Google — the colossal, faceless depository of infinite information — into a cheerful and friendly entity.
The Google Doodle is that whimsical and ephemeral illustration that pops up every week or so on the Google home page, cleverly draped around the company’s logo. Usually visible for just 24 hours at a time, the Doodles can be entertaining, poignant or downright thought-provoking — even educational, with a hip, NPR-ish vibe. Think of them as affable, educational nudges intent on making us a smarter and more curious lot.
“At its core, the Doodle is a playful take on our logo — a tiny little gift,” Germick explains. “It’s surprising and delightful and shines a light on something that’s important. We want to put a smile on someone’s face but also intrigue them enough to learn more.”
As the chief Doodler and inspirational leader of the team, Germick — pronounced “Grrr as in tiger, Mick as in Jagger,” as he notes on his website — has the coolest job ever. A self-admitted techno-geek and Peter Pan-syndrome afflictee, he comes across as a disarming, quick-with-a-quip-and-smart-as-a-whip frat boy, or that long-haired, bookish-looking “creative genius” down the block who’ll build you a website for a couple of hundred bucks and a sixer. In short, Germick is a perfect fit for a company that prizes nerdy free spirits the way Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister relishes Dornish wine.
At times, the Doodles are capable of bringing workplace productivity to a screeching halt, right up there with fantasy football and NCAA basketball-tournament pools. Take the first interactive Doodle that appeared on Google’s home page on May 21, 2010: a miniature, spot-on replication of Pac-Man in honor of the iconic video game’s 30th anniversary. Work on that report or play Pac-Man? No contest.
Then there was the May 23, 2012, Doodle that paid homage to the 78th birthday of Dr. Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer, a device synonymous with the face of 1980s rock. To the chagrin of employee managers everywhere, Google visitors could use a mouse or a keyboard to manipulate knobs and keys on a mini-Moog synthesizer Doodle. They also could record their musical noodlings on a virtual four-track recorder, then play and share their creations. In a mere 24 hours, users composed a staggering 54 million-plus songs — enough music to play for 57 years straight. Then they played the songs back 3.6 million times. It’s a wonder rolling blackouts didn’t ensue.
“I will say, it’s very gratifying to create something that allows millions of people to create,” Germick says. “But at some point, you simply can’t process it. All you can do is keep making the coolest thing you can make. That’s the only guiding light.”
“Like any kid, I loved to draw and just never stopped after that,” he says.
Germick majored in creative writing and illustration at Parsons The New School for Design and Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, both in New York City. After graduating in 2003, he freelanced for Comedy Central, HBO Family and the Cartoon Network before landing a job as a graphics specialist at Google in October 2006. A couple of years later, when Google created a formal Doodle division, Germick was named its chief pied piper. The team has since grown to about 10 illustrators and a handful of software engineers, and it now produces roughly 400 Doodles annually, both in the United States and abroad (at most, only 60 or so a year for any given country).
Germick and his crew work their magic from the second floor of Building 43 on the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. Given Google’s reputation as a spirited corporate rumpus room, it’s not surprising that the cubicle-free workspace feels less like an office and more like a common space in a college dorm — one dotted with computer monitors, the occasional stuffed animal, illustrations galore and enough Post-it notes to make one consider buying shares in 3M.
The criteria for selecting what’s Doodle-worthy are notable for, well, a lack of criteria (though innovators go to the head of the class, judging from a random review of prior Doodles). “We love to celebrate a really wide range of things and people across science, history and culture — there are no hard and fast rules,” Germick notes. “We hold regular brainstorming sessions where we look at all the ideas and decide which ones we’ll tackle.” (You can even submit your own ideas to email@example.com.) Doodles are generally planned out three to six months in advance, though occasionally a spur-of-the-moment idea gets to cut in line, if deemed important enough. Some Doodles take as little as a few days to create. Others, like the Pac-Man or Moog Doodles, take months to develop.
As a personal influence, Germick cites everything from Charlie Chaplin to Prince to The Simpsons. To help his team find its own creative muse, though, he often proposes random challenges during those weekly brainstorming sessions. Like the time Germick asked the Doodlers to combine three films from the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best movies into one and make a poster for it. “Like Rosemary’s Baby goes Back to the Future on the Titanic,” Germick quips. “That was super fun.” Another time, team members wrote down a couple of sentences about a dream they remembered, and the person to their right had to illustrate it. Hey, it’s not weird if it works, right?
In the meantime, Germick and the Doodlers continue to spotlight a parade of little-known pioneers, inventors, scientists, authors and the like — figures such as Edith Nesbit, Nam June Paik, Alphonse Mucha, Herta Heuwer, Robert Noyce and Percy Julian, to name just a few (see all 2,000 or so Doodles at www.google.com/doodles). Omniscient Google already knows who they are, and you should too. So go ahead — start Googling. That weekly report can wait.
Ken Wysocky is a freelance writer in Milwaukee who now plays a mean Moog synthesizer.