Visual Culture

20 Years In, a Look at Google Doodle’s Milestones and Innovations

Google Doodle, 44th Anniversary of the Birth of Hip Hop, 2017. Courtesy of Google.

Google Doodle, 44th Anniversary of the Birth of Hip Hop, 2017. Courtesy of Google.

It’s a chicken-or-the-egg sort of question: Which came first, Google, or its Doodles? It was, in fact, the Doodle—illustrated or animated versions of the Google logo that have enlivened its landing page throughout the years. Several days before Google incorporated in 1998, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin added the Burning Man festival logo to Google’s logo before departing for Black Rock City, Nevada. Ben McMahan, Doodle team tech lead, explained that it was “intended as a comical message to Google users that the founders were ‘out of office.’”
“It would be safe to say that Larry and Sergey did not anticipate what they are today,” McMahan added. Twenty years later, Google Doodles have been illustrated and animated to coincide with and celebrate an endless number of occasions, from holidays like Thanksgiving and the Holi Festival to milestones like the 44th anniversary of hip-hop, whose Doodle taught users how to mix sampled beats using virtual turntables. Google even received an Emmy nod for the 2018 VR short that honored French illusionist and director Georges Méliès.
Google Doodle, Burning Man Festival, 1998. Courtesy of Google.

Google Doodle, Burning Man Festival, 1998. Courtesy of Google.

Some of the first Doodles included a series of alien invasions in May 2000, as well as a Bastille Day illustration that same year by then-intern Dennis Hwang. (Following its success, Hwang became the inaugural “Chief Doodler.”) The first animated Doodle was revealed that Halloween in all of its cute, clip art–looking glory.
Interactive designs have become a mainstay in Doodle culture. Early creations included the buckyball and particle Doodles, which would expand as your cursor moved over them. In 2010, the design team flexed their muscles with the first interactive game—a fully playable Pac-Man to celebrate the beloved arcade game’s 30th anniversary. As an engineer, McMahan especially enjoyed last year’s pangolin-themed game for Valentine’s Day and gnome-themed game Garden Day (in Germany); both Doodles require a fair amount of skill—and patience—to complete.
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If you’re still reading this (including all those links was a risky move), you’ll be happy to hear that, according to MacMahan, plenty more interactive Doodles await the world. The team is constantly innovating how Doodles can relay a narrative. Future Doodles will doubtlessly build on the milestones already achieved—like the first live-action short for Charlie Chaplin’s 122nd birthday, and a slideshow format for the 200th anniversary of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. To honor sci-fi author Stanisław Lem in 2011, the code behind his Doodle was the first to be open-sourced. And in 2016, the team put together seven mobile games for Android and iOS during the 2016 Olympic Games.

Google Doodle, Back to the Moon, 2018.

Google Doodle–planning is a complex affair. Each year, team members meet to choose the events they think should be celebrated on the home page. The ideas come from both internal discussions and external petitions from users. “While there are many considerations, overall, the Doodle selection process has always aimed to celebrate a diverse mix of topics that reflect Google’s personality, to teach people something new, and most importantly, to make sure Doodles are meaningful to local culture,” McMahan explained.
“Ultimately, I think what makes the Doodle successful is that it’s a human being telling a story to another human,” he continued. “It’s amazing to see how even such a small canvas can be used to tell huge stories.”
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.