What started in 1998 as a stick figure drawing behind the letter “o” to show the team were out of the office, has now developed into intricate designs, games and artistic representations of famous figures and events.
There have been more than 1,000 doodles. They depict both the famous and the less well-known, they feature anniversaries and some more idiosyncratic tributes, and are increasingly becoming interactive and shareable.
How else would hundreds of millions of people been reminded of Amelia Earhart’s 115th birthday or that Gideon Sundback was the inventor of the zip? On his 132nd birthday, Google placed a giant zip down their home page.
On every day of the 2012 Olympics, a new sport-themed doodle in the form of a game has lived above the search bar. One day it was synchronised swimming, another day users could practise shooting hoops against the clock.
With every new doodle comes a raft of online news articles. The choice of doodle is always a noteworthy event, not least among bored office workers for whom the sketches offer a welcome splash of variety into their daily routine.
Whether one treats the doodles as art or design, they are among the most viewed examples in the world.
Despite the attention, there is little focus on the creators.
Watch the Charlie Chaplin doodle and you will get a glimpse, although in costume, of the team who call themselves “doodlers”.
They are seen by hundreds of millions of people. Some are put together in a few hours – others, like the Freddie Mercury tribute, take several months to complete. All are created by the handful of “doodlers” who sit in a small office in California.
The team’s “creative lead”, Ryan Germick, says he doesn’t dwell on the idea of his work being viewed by such a mindboggling number of people.
“Human brains are not built to understand how hundreds of millions of people interpret something. For me it’s more about seeing if I can make my colleagues laugh, or learn a new technique. Then I’ve done my job.
“We just make sure we are representing art and technology in the best possible way.”
He says they don’t categorise themselves as artists or designers.
“We are the line between entertainment, arts, technology and graphic design. Those lines are very blurry.”
The team, he says, are trying to deliver a maximum amount of joy with the limited resources available. Once designer Dennis Hwang was responsible for most of the doodles, but he has since moved on to other things. Individuals on the team don’t usually take credit for their work.
“It’s not about us as individuals, it’s about Google as a culture,” says Germick.
Most of those working on the technical side of the doodles do so under Google’s 20% principle – where their day job is something else but a fifth of their time can be dedicated to a project.
Kris Hom, a technical engineer who used to be one of the 20% and only recently joined the doodle team full time, says the pinnacle for him was when his mother shared her score from one of the Olympic playable doodles.
The doodles are a way to “humanise the home page”, says Hom.
The decision on what’s featured, says Germick, is a “fairly democratic process” and is more about the element of surprise and finding a memory or person that’s “a good fit”, than celebrating common anniversaries. If they had to wait for Earhart’s 150th birthday, for example, it would be a very long wait.
So are the doodles art?
“The point about art is that it is free of function,” says Deyan Sudjic, director of London’s Design Museum. “Design – which used to be called commercial art – is tied down by a functional obligation.
“Andy Warhol began as an illustrator and made himself into an artist. The drawings he did as an illustrator sell for a lot, but not as much as his art does.”
But graphic designer Si Scott – whose work includes corporate clients but also features in exhibitions – believes that these days design, including the doodles, is the new modern art.
Jasmine Montgomery, chief executive of marketing company Seven Brands, disagrees.
“Once you are being paid to harness your creativity to branding or advertising, it’s not strictly art because it’s serving a commercial master and not a purely creative master.
“The doodles are part of a well-designed customer experience. They are the equivalent of a hotel designing a nice lobby or a product coming in beautiful packaging,” she argues.
It’s hard to get away from the underlying corporate purpose of the doodles. They help Google play with its image – an image that occasionally comes under attack either because of privacy or accusations of tax avoidance.
The quirkier facts behind the doodles create “water cooler conversation”, says branding consultant Lisa Downey Merriam, of Merriam Associates.
“The doodles are fun charming, playful and engaging, most of all they are relevant and sometimes even surprising – all this portrays some of the Google’s personality.”
And as long as the company retains its dominance, those sketches and scribbles – whether you see them as art, design, entertainment or hard-headed branding – will be a ubiquitous part of everyday browsing.
You can preview the past doodles from here