Growing up in Uniondale, N.Y., Jennifer Hom loved to draw, especially doodles of flowers, unicorns and fairies. Today, the artist still doodles–but for an audience of millions of computer users who visit google.com, the popular Internet search site.
Working at the offices of Google Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. (pop. 74,066), Hom is a member of the creative team that produces amusing, informative and whimsical doodles that decorate Google's corporate logo on its home page for national holidays and special events–or sometimes just for fun.
"Don't listen to anyone who says you can't do anything with art, because it's not true," says Hom, 24, who graduated in 2009 from the Rhode Island School of Design.
Celebrating everything from the Fourth of July to Albert Einstein's birthday to the anniversary of the Pac-Man arcade game, Google doodlers humanize the company's worldwide search network, used more than 1 billion times daily. Their creations have become an important part of the Google brand and generate waves of chatter and goodwill on the Internet.
"Google doodles allow us to have fun with our company logo and express our love of art and technology," says Ying Wang, Google's director of product management. "We want to share this fun with our users and hope our doodles put a smile on their faces before they go on to their daily activities."
The first doodle was introduced in 1998 when Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of what then was a startup company, were leaving town to attend the Burning Man Festival, a weeklong music and arts event in the northern Nevada desert. To signal to Google users that they were away from their desks, they inserted a primitive line drawing of the Burning Man logo behind the second "O" in the Google name.
Periodically, other doodles followed featuring simple clip art to enhance the company's logo for New Year's Day, Valentine's Day and other prominent holidays, as well as the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Dennis Hwang was 22 and a computer-programming intern from Stanford University when he became the company's first chief doodler. Hwang, who enjoyed drawing cartoons for his own amusement, made his Google debut on July 14, 2000, with a doodle celebrating France's Bastille Day.
Users responded enthusiastically to the artwork, and doodles have been a regular feature of Google's home page ever since. Over the years, the team has created more than 300 doodles for the U.S. site and more than 700 for Google home pages in 45 other nations in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.
"We create images to astound, amuse and educate our users," says Ryan Germick, 31, who joined Google in 2006 as the team's first full-time doodler. "We're always trying to one-up ourselves and do something that hasn't been done before, but we also want it to remain fun for the users."
While Google's early doodles were simplistic and playful–celebrating the birthdays of Michelangelo, Martin Luther King Jr. and Andy Warhol; events such as Election Day or World Cup soccer; or milestones such as the 100th anniversary of flight or the 50th anniversary of the understanding of DNA–they became more elaborate beginning in 2006 as artists were hired for the sole purpose of doodling.
The Google logo has been written in Braille to celebrate the birthday of Louis Braille, creator of the writing system for the visually impaired; tapped out in Morse code symbols to honor Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph; constructed of Lego bricks to mark the toy's 50th anniversary; and illuminated like laser lights as one of many doodles honoring scientific inventions.
The first animated doodle premiered Jan. 4, 2010, for what would have been Sir Isaac Newton's 368th birthday, and paid tribute to the scientist's theories on gravity. A click of the mouse made an apple fall from a tree branch.
The era of interactive doodles arrived several months later when visitors to Google's home page were invited to play a game of Pac-Man. For Thanksgiving, a holiday feast shaped like the company logo revealed a recipe from chef Ina Garten for each dish clicked. A doodle celebrating the 75th birthday of Muppeteer Jim Henson allowed users to maneuver various Muppet characters. And last June, Google unveiled its most popular doodle–honoring guitar innovator Les Paul by letting users pluck guitar strings to compose their own ditties. The musical doodle drew more than 40 million hits in two days.
Taking fun seriously
Doodlers work in a creative environment on Google's campus in an office that features high ceilings and lots of natural light where team members regularly brainstorm to identify noncontroversial topics worthy of a doodle. The ideas are gathered from numerous sources, including Google users, and research that, not surprisingly, requires lots of Googling across the World Wide Web.
"We like the idea of serendipity," says Germick, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York City and now the team's creative director. "Since Google is a technological company, we tend to make doodles that celebrate innovation, technology and science. We keep them lighthearted to surprise and delight our users."
The size of Germick's team fluctuates–Hwang now is one of the company's webmasters, for instance–and the artists draw on the work of Google animators, engineers, designers, filmmakers and illustrators throughout the world. Though a doodle usually only gets 24 hours of face time at google.com, a group of artists may devote months to its creation.
For instance, a doodle last April 16 marking the birthday of comic legend Charlie Chaplin featured a two-minute black-and-white film in which every member of the doodle team played a role. "The Chaplin doodle took a lot of people and a lot of effort to create," says Hom, who portrayed a woman selling muffins. "We had a whole film crew working with us."
Beyond digital pens and electronic tablets, tools for creating Google doodles range from clip art to fine art. For a 2011 doodle honoring French painter Cézanne, doodler Mike Dutton painted with oils on a traditional canvas to capture the artist's characteristic brushstrokes and to create an image for digital scanning. For a doodle celebrating Russian composer Tchaikovsky, Google videotaped members of the San Francisco Ballet and used images of their bodies to spell out the logo.
Such creative freedom is why Hom loves her job. "We have a lot of autonomy and celebrate things that are geeky, artsy and fun," she says.