Doodles at 20: the best Google homepage logo recreations

Matt Cruickshank is art director at Google and part of the Doodles team, which, for the last 20 years, has regularly transformed the well-known Google logo to respond to landmark events and important anniversaries.

From illustrations and animations through to interactive platform games and virtual reality experiences, the tech company’s homepage has been creatively reinterpreted to celebrate Doctor Who, mark International Women’s Day and highlight the global environmental crisis.

Cruickshank looks back at the evolution of the ever-changing logo, which all began with a trip to Burning Man Festival in 1998.

Courtesy of Google

Design Week: How long have you been part of the Google Doodles team?

Matt Cruickshank: For six years, since 2012. There were five or six artists when I joined, and now there are 11.

DW: What’s your creative background?

MC: I’m an animator, illustrator, painter and also create short films. I studied graphic design at Salisbury Art College, then moved on to the University of Bournemouth to study animation, and then studied animation for another year at Midglamorgan Art Centre in Wales. Before Google, I worked as a character art manager at Disney, and a character artist at Warner Brothers. In my mind, animation is the most powerful medium in the world, and when I joined Google, I loved that I could start moving things around.

DW: What is the make-up of the Google Doodles team?

MC: There are content people, dedicated to coming up with the content for the Doodles, software engineers and artists. The great thing is that you get to work with engineers, who are so logical, and then artists, who are mostly illogical. There’s a great balance of two worlds coming together, and an interesting mix of illustration and graphics. It’s more of a graphic design job to begin with, as you’re creating a legible logo for a company, then illustration comes in. We try to get people from varied backgrounds. One day each week, the team members can work on a different [non-Doodle] project as well, to showcase their skills.

DW: How long does a Doodle take to create?

MC: It takes one to two weeks to create a static doodle, but a large interactive one could be about three months of work. This is quite a lot of work considering it will only run for one day globally.

DW: Are all Doodles global?

MC: Some Doodles are bespoke for particular countries, and some, for events like Halloween, are released globally. For the global Doodles, we try to create a versatile and visual experience, rather than focus on words, which means people who speak different languages can understand it. At least once a month, people around the world are getting something relevant to them and their country. Sometimes, if there are a lot of great subjects, people will see two or three in a month. We try to give breathing space to the user though, so it’s not constantly changing and bombarding people with things.

DW: Why are Doodles so important?

MC: It’s a challenging society that we live in now, and it’s easy to be negative about things. We see this as a chance to really celebrate human achievement. We can teach people things – the internet, and Google, has become this gateway for information. That’s quite powerful and we want to use that in a positive way. We’ve realised Doodles have grown, and we’ve become the face of the company to some extent, as it’s the first entry point to the website – Google is well-known for its logo. Doodles give people an opportunity to have a bit of a break, have some fun or learn something.

Matt Cruickshank on his top 10 Doodles

Burning Man, 30 August 1998

MC: This was the first ever Google Doodle. It was created partially as a mistake and was just meant to be an out-of-office message to website visitors as Google employees went to Burning Man festival. They were really surprised with the success of it, and it sums up what Google’s been trying to do ever since. It showed that there was a human behind the logo, and was a reminder that it’s a company full of people. It sums up the irreverence of the founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and their willingness to try things. Google was a very small company at the time, so they could try something and see if it worked out. I think once they realised it was popular, they began to look at subject matter that would make for other interesting opportunities. Gradually, it’s grown into something that can be used for educational purposes to let people know about events.

Doodle 4 Google 2005, 17 November 2005

MC: This is a beautiful thing that Google does. Kids love to draw and people like to design, so the company thought – can we have a competition to showcase the beauty of drawing and give prize money to a school’s technology department? They started the Doodle 4 Google competition in 2005 then continued it every year with a different theme. The first ever theme was “The best day of my life”. They put together a website and took entries from children transforming the Google logo from all over the world. We had an overall winner and category winners, who were able to come visit Google’s San Francisco’s office, and would spend time with a Doodler, teaching them and helping them draw. They also won money, which would go towards their school to help with the tech department.

Discovery of Water on the Moon, 13 November 2009

MC: This was the first ever Doodle created in one day – this is the closest Google got to creating a live Doodle! It showed how quickly you could see this discovery in the news, contact NASA, get the right information, and launch a message to people. It also went back to the point of how Google didn’t need to just celebrate the past but be quite modern and respond instantly to an event. The logo took four hours to create and included an online resource where people could learn more about the subject. It’s funny because in the print or publishing industry, four hours has always been quite a lot of time!

30th Anniversary of Pac-Man, 21 May 2010

MC: This one is really interesting – it was the first interactive game Doodle we did, and it broke the internet on that day. It was a major turning point for a Doodle. Taking a logo and turning it into a game showed how you could utilise the internet to do a lot more than just publishing and printing information. The team realised that the logo could be transformed into anything and so it decided to celebrate Pac-Man’s 30th anniversary by creating a game. Initially, the sound came on automatically when people played it, but we changed it to be on mute – people couldn’t get away with playing a game for 10 minutes instead of working in their offices! We still get a tremendous amount of people playing it. Play it here.

Charlie Chaplin’s 122nd birthday, 16 April 2011

MC: Again, this was interesting because we quickly realised that a Doodle could be anything – we’d gone from a static logo to animations to making video games to embedding videos. This was the first live action, or real-life film, Doodle. The chief Doodler, Ryan Germick, is a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin. This involved recreating a small montage of scenes and involved Doodlers themselves acting. My good friend Mike Dutton is playing Chaplin. One of the caveats of working at Google is that you may have to portray Charlie Chaplin at some point. Watch it here.

Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary, 23 November 2013

MC: This is another one of mine, and I’m proud of it. Ryan Germick, our chief Doodler, came up to me and said: “You’re the only English person on the Doodle team – you have to do Doctor Who.” I went to the BBC, and they were really interested at being involved. They gave us access to the sound effects from the original series, released in the 1960s. I decided to put together various Doctor Who’s from history and turn them into graphic illustrations. I then made it into a multi-level platform game where people could play Doctor Who. When they hit a Dalek or lost a life, they could regenerate.

There were six levels to it, and it was quite challenging, it definitely wasn’t a simple game. It was a great nod to the UK and BBC, as well as to animated characters. This took about three months to create, which is quite a lot of work when it’s only running on the homepage for one day globally. I chose a platform game firstly because I’m old, and those were the games I grew up playing, and because of the website’s pixel size – the homepage allows 700 x 220 pixels, so there wasn’t a lot of resolution or space for intricate details. We had to break things down into the simplest form. Play it here.

International Women’s Day 2014, 8 March 2014

MC: This was the Doodle that featured the most people. It had come to our attention that we were celebrating a lot of men. When we looked back at people throughout history, there were so many women who had done amazing things but men had taken credit for them. We wanted to encourage diversity in our Doodle projects, and now we always have a quota at the start of the year of half-and-half men and women. We found women from around the world to talk about empowerment and aspirations. We ended up with hundreds of submissions, totally in at around 360 Doodles. We ran different ones in particular countries, making it a global Doodle, as we felt this was relevant for everyone. Watch it here.

44th anniversary of the Birth of Hip Hop, 11 August 2017

MC: This was quite recent and it started as a small idea – we were just trying to work out if we could create two record turntables on the homepage. It was a no-brainer that we’d use these to spell the “O”s in “Google”. Then it grew into a platform where people could play different records, a way to celebrate different cultures. We began reaching out to celebrities to include more records, some of which were originals. People could physically scratch the turntables, so it worked really well on phones. It created a versatile experience, and also helped us create a global Doodle, where people who spoke different languages all over the world could understand it. It was a very graphic way of giving a tutorial. Play the records here.

Earth Day 2018, 22 April 2018

MC: This one’s mine! I’ve been on the Doodle team for five years and have done fun and serious Doodles. Once or twice a year, we pitch our own ideas, and for this one, we thought we could either carry on celebrating talented and important people who have passed away, or do something that felt a little bit more relevant. Millions of people are currently worried about the environment so we decided to find someone from an environmental background to give a personal message.

Dr Jane Goodall lives in Bournemouth but travels for 300 days of the year. We caught up with her in Los Angeles (LA), and interviewed her in a relaxed way – she was great at talking and explaining her beliefs. We wanted to animate her life, so we made an animated YouTube video. We chose Dr Goodall because she has a similar gravitas, experience and wisdom to David Attenborough. But also, they both seem like people with great integrity who have devoted their whole lives to this subject. Who we choose for these things is a big decision. Her message at the end is so powerful, personal and heartfelt. It is the most-watched Doodle we’ve ever done.

Celebrating Georges Méliès, 3 May 2018

MC: This was the first ever virtual reality (VR) and 360-degree video Doodle, celebrating French illusionist and film director Georges Méliès. This pushed technological boundaries in a way we really wanted it to. Méliès pioneered so many cinematic techniques, so using this high-tech was a slight nod to him. Users could experience the Doodle without a headset as a 360-degree video, or using their smartphone, a Google Cardboard headset or another headset to experience it as a VR experience.

You could watch little stories from some of his films and see his characters come to life, which would gradually come together as a whole visual journey, with information about each film coming up on the right. This could be paused as users explored one particular visual experience. It’s fascinating what this does for the future of storytelling. Watch it here.

What’s your favourite Google Doodle from the last 20 years? Let us know in the comments below.

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