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The big ‘G’ and the little ‘e’ have gotten the least action B Y K RISH R AGHAV


ennis Hwang is the person responsible for colour in Google’s otherwise minimalist homepage. His work for the last nine years, since he joined Google Inc. as an intern in 2000, is seen by millions of people every day in the form of the search engine’s evermorphing logo, from a washedout watercolour nod to painter Monet to a pencil-sketched tribute to Chinese mathematician Zu Chongzhi. And that’s not even his day job. Hwang is an international webmaster at Google, with the famous doodles his “20% time” project, a Google philosophy that allows employees to spend one day a week working on projects that aren’t part of their usual job descriptions. In Delhi to announce the winners of the India leg of “Doodle 4 Google”, an international competition for schoolchildren to design an iteration of the Google logo, he spoke to Mint about the origin, process and sometimes problematic nature of the Google doodles. Edited excerpts:


How did the Google Doodles start? Were they around before you joined Google? When I joined as an intern, [Google founders] Larry Page and Sergey Brin had started dabbling in it. The first one they created was really an “out of office” message to show their users that they were away at this festival called the Burning Man. They put a little symbol of the Burning Man next to the logo. People just loved that one. But right from the beginning, there’s always been this kind of internal turmoil, because if you read any marketing textbook—the first guideline is always “don’t touch your corporate logo”. In the early days, they had external contractors who’d sometimes make logos, and Larry and Sergey themselves made a few, which was um…interesting. In around July 2000 they approached me, they knew I’d studied art, and said, “Hey, why don’t you give it a try?” The first one you created was on 14 July, 2000, for Bastille Day. The ‘l’ in Google had a little French flag on it. Yeah. Back then, Google did not have different home pages for different countries like we do now, so a lot of people from the UK actually wrote in to complain that there was little French flag on the logo. Actually, when I look back at some of these earliest ones, I cringe in embarrassment. One of the other earliest logos we did was for Holi. I remember that I personally didn’t know anything about the festival, and one of my Indian colleagues said it would be perfect for a

Google logo, with the splashes of colour. Does doodling consume a lot of time at work for you, even though its still a “20% time” project? It was always tight, so now there’s a team of Googlers who work on this…some of the recent ones like the Sesame Street series was actually the team that created it. I still provide creative guidance, and I manage the team whenever I can. We’ve also always had fun inviting artists to do guest doodles for us, its worked out great. How do the doodles get made? Is there an internal approval pro­ cess? In the early days, Larry and Sergey did the emperor-style thumbs-up, thumbs-down on every logo. They’re still very much involved—they like to provide feedback if they have strong feelings about it. Not too long ago, they would even describe the design that they wanted for a particular logo. By now, we have a team, so it’s a fairly painless and informal process. We try and cover events from countries we don’t have much of a presence in as well…Vietnamese holidays, for example. A lot of doodle ideas also come from Google users. Like with any endeavour on the Internet, is there a bias with the logos to­ wards geeky, tech­related sub­ jects? Of course. But we don’t avoid it, we embrace it! We’ve done some really geeky ones. Like when the Large Hadron Collider was being powered up in Switzerland, we did one that made fun of people’s fears that it would create a black hole. We briefly showed a timestamp when the Unix system timestamp turned 1234567890 (computers based on the Unix operating system use a coded 10-digit number). Not too many people may relate to it, but some of our closest users are computer scientists and geeks, and I mean that in a very endearing way. But I think now we try to cover innovation in every field—scientists, technology definitely, and we do many artist birthdays as well. How long does a doodle usually take to complete? It can take anywhere from a

Generally, we find that the doodle doesn’t work very well for anything political or overtly religious

PN VASANTI WHAT’S ALLOWED Foreign investment limits in media segments.

FM radio


Cable network



News and current affairs TV broadcaster


Newspapers and current affairs journals/magazines

Non-news journals/magazines

No limit

*The entry route for all these sectors requires approval of the Foreign Investment Promotion Board




Uplinking hub/teleports

························ NEW DELHI


Non-news TV broadcaster


No limit

FDI + FII **FDI component not to exceed 20% FDI: Foreign direct investment FII: Foreign institutional invesment


Source: Trai consultation paper on foreign Investment limits for broadcasting sector, March 2008




Changing script: Dennis Hwang says a doodle can take anywhere from a few minutes to days to sometimes weeks to complete; (below) a doodle in the recent Sesame Street series, which was created by a Google team. few minutes to days to sometimes weeks. Most of the time, it’s not actually the drawing of it that takes time. Some of the logos may look very detailed, but we work very fast. The maximum time is taken by the many countless iterations on the concept, because we get one little thing wrong about the culture and you hear from millions of people. You’ll get emails that say, ‘That looks nothing like what we eat here!’ so we’re very careful with what we depict. Have any of the doodles been divi­ sive? In 2003, we did a logo with a double helix to celebrate 50 years of the discovery of DNA. Within minutes I started hearing from geneticists and scientists all around the world. They were all like, “That’s not a double helix!” thousands of emails all in caps: “PLEASE FIX IT.” I was amazed, it was two pixels of detail that they had a problem with and caught on to faster than anybody else. Which letters in the Google logo

are the hardest to work with? The big “G” and the little “e” have gotten the least amount of action, because they’re so hard to incorporate into…well, any shape. Do you have any favourites? We’ve done a lot of interesting ones. We celebrated the 25th anniversary of the game Tetris in June 2009. One of the original programmers who worked on Tetris all those years ago is now a Googler—so we thought it’d be cool to celebrate that. We did one for Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, where we just changed the letters around in our logo. That was fun. Are there particular issues or themes that the doodles avoid? We’re constantly re-evaulating our policies with regards to what we like or not like to do. Generally, we find that the Google doodle doesn’t work very well for anything political, or anything overtly religious. Divisive issues, we stay away from. The doodle is usually light hearted, so anything serious and solemn sometimes comes across as disrespectful. It’s something we keep having internal dialogues about. It’s not an editorial stance; we’re not in a place to do that. Do you rely on Google it­ self to research the doo­ dles? Oh yes. Google’s image search is indispensable, and I use a lot of Google Labs projects—like Google Sets—to help me organize my research. Have you considered any in­ dependent graphic projects, out­ side of Google? I’m having so much fun right now, I haven’t even thought about it!

n a democracy, media ownership matters, especially at a time when it is increasingly being used to influence opinion or mislead people. Earlier, in this column, I have written about how political parties own some media vehicles, and misuse them. An important issue that is related to this is foreign ownership and investment in media. India’s expanding economy presents a lucrative business opportunity for media firms. Therefore, the policy governing foreign ownership restrictions of electronic and print media still remains one that is watched closely by investors and others. Those in support of foreign ownership of media, speak of open economies, more investments and induction of global best practices/technologies. This could be true of several manufacturing and services sectors but in the case of media, Indian media houses have demonstrated that they have professional capabilities and there is no technology that cannot be bought or sourced. The media business has always been viewed as something that can influence opinion and behaviour and the Indian approach has hitherto been to bar and, in cases where it is allowed, tightly regulate, foreign investment in media. This approach is primarily driven by security and nationalistic considerations but it also helps protect and promote local firms. These considerations have restricted foreign direct investment, or FDI, in the media sector both at the content creation level and at the carriage/platform level. Such restrictions are not unique to our country but are common in almost all countries with a thriving media business. Even Rupert Murdoch had to change his citizenship to become an American citizen to acquire a stake in US media firms. In India, Murdoch has had to take the partnership route to get To read all of PN Vasanti’s earlier around Indian policy. That, or columns, go to similar approaches, have been used by media brands such as BBC, Forbes and others to enter the country. (Editor’s note: Mint has an exclusive content alliance with The Wall Street Journal, whose brand it is allowed to use on its masthead; Wall Street Journal is part of Dow Jones & Co., which is owned by Murdoch’s News Corp.) Most foreign media firms are awaiting policy changes to make their presence more strongly felt. Over time, India has changed its policy. In 2002, it relaxed its stringent laws to allow 100% FDI in non-news media but imposed a 26% cap on such investment in news ventures. Since then, foreign ownership limits have slowly been relaxed to the existing levels across various media. (The current limits for foreign investment in different segments of the media sector are given in the accompanying table.) Recently, the current information and broadcasting minister has been talking of changing foreign investment guidelines further. Last year, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) had also reviewed these limits and recommended further relaxation—for example increasing FDI in DTH (direct-to-home) services to 74% to keep parity with FDI in the telecom sector. It had also recommended that FDI in news channels be raised to 49%. Further, the department of industrial policy and promotion has recently issued Press notes # 2, 3 & 4 of the 2009 series that actually circumvent current foreign ownership limits and allow various foreign broadcasters to increase their stake in their Indian ventures to 74%. The compulsion, or the national necessity, for such expansion of foreign ownership has not been articulated. This rethink of foreign ownership regulation is quite illustrative of policy making in India. It shows how policies have been modified to suit certain interests while also opening wide gaps for others to take undue advantage of what has proved to be a weak monitoring and implementation systems. Clearly, the original considerations—security and nationalistic ones—are no less relevant today than they were sometime back. I believe critical decisions of vital import for the sector have to be made after adequate debate and discussions between all stakeholders, including the audience, civil society, media professionals, and academia. P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at


The Google Doodler  

Interview with Dennis Hwang, the Google doodler.