Doodle Dandy

Born of a whim, Google's mutating logo is its most creative asset

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It may have been the most consequential out-of-the-office message in design history. On Aug. 30, 1998, Sergey Brin and Larry Page left the office of their Silicon Valley start-up to attend the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. They placed a man-on-fire stick figure behind their home-page logo: a hieroglyph telling users, in effect, "If the servers melt down, sorry. We're away." A little over a year later, at 3 a.m. on Oct. 31, Brin slapped a pair of pixelated clip-art pumpkins over the oo in Google, this time to show users that they were in the office working nonstop but were still psyched about Halloween.

They didn't know it at the time, but the Google doodle was born.

The doodle — an imaginative transformation of the Google logo, usually pegged to a holiday or anniversary — has become the Internet behemoth's most engaging innovation and its most effective advertising tool. (Think about it: in the age of the search toolbar, is there any other reason to visit the Google home page?) What began as a lark is now a full-fledged branch of Google, employing several full-time doodlers and a part-time engineer. "The founders saw the doodle as an opportunity to humanize the company," says current lead doodler Ryan Germick, 31.

Doodle subjects have ranged from artists (Vincent van Gogh, Andy Warhol) to scientists (Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton) to holidays both major and minor (three cheers for Porridge Day!). Around 2005 the doodles started skewing a bit abstract. (Check out the Morse-code, braille and bar-code doodles.) And since last year, Google has focused on video-based and interactive doodles. Some you play (Pac-Man), some you navigate (Jules Verne), and some you just sit back and watch (Charlie Chaplin, John Lennon). Look closely and there's often a hidden joke or function to discover (Verne, Pac-Man and Ina Garten).

After 271 doodles last year (up from just 33 in 2000), Google's latest may be its most ambitious. For the June 9 birthday of guitar legend Les Paul, the doodle team created a playable guitar. Users can strum it, record with it and even send their compositions to others. Germick is tight-lipped about what his team is doodling next, but you can bet it doesn't involve clip art.