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September 2018

Issue: September 2018

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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
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Lunch with Sophie Diao

1 September 2018

Google’s Sophie Diao breaks down the enduring appeal of the search engine’s homepage doodles

It’s hard to believe that Google’s homepage has been entertaining us for nearly two decades. What was once a clean white page with the brand’s signature coloured font and search bar has evolved into a space for learning, inspiration – even social change. These commemorative illustrations and interactive games woven into the search engine’s logo are what the tech giant calls Google Doodles. In a first, it recently released a virtual reality animation via a 360-degree YouTube short video “Back to the Moon”, to celebrate filmmaker and French illusionist George Méliès. It took six months to produce, ran on the homepage for 48 hours, and exemplifies how much human creativity, collaboration and effort goes into continually reenergising what could be a generic search engine.

“Doodles started in 1998 when Google was forming and deciding what the design would be. It’s pretty baked in at this point,” illustrator Sophie Diao explains over lunch at the bustling Presidio Social Club in San Francisco. It’s interesting how things have progressed: The first Google Doodle was a human stick figure designed by Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who used it as a kind of out of office message to tell users that they were at Burning Man Festival (and therefore unavailable to deal with server issues). That was 20 years ago.

Today, a dedicated Google Doodle team is mostly based in Mountain View and San Francisco in Northern California, with a few working out of London and Los Angeles. Diao works in San Francisco’s Embarcadero District, alongside a group of artists and engineers. In her current role as art director/illustrator, Diao draws and animates as well as managing freelance contributions, which include concept artists at Pixar: Diao provided art direction to Ana Ramirez Gonzalez (who worked on the film Coco) on a Google Doodle honouring Katy Jurado, the first Mexican actress to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Over a hotchpotch lunch of oysters, tuna poke, and eggplant fries, Diao tells me that the first doodle she ever noticed was one commemorating Charles Dickens’ birthday on February 7, 2012. Intrigued, she contacted the artist, Mike Dutton. “He’s really amazing. I emailed him and asked him if he’d look at my portfolio,” she says. He responded, offered his advice, and in time, helped her secure a three-month internship while she was at college.

“It was interesting. My parents live near Google, so I lived with them for the summer and got to draw all day. It was quite an introduction because I was doing all these things on my first day, in my first week,” she explains.

“It was 2012, and we were working on doodles for the London Olympics, a series of illustrations for all these sports and games – a soccer game, kayaking game, basketball game, hurdling game. They gave me four Olympic doodles to work on my very own from start to finish, and then I was helping on animation for the games. So, animating the guy jumping over the hurdle, or the kayaker rowing. I would finish it and my work would be live. It was kind of surreal seeing my art for the first time.” After graduating college, she was asked back for an interview, landing a full-time job illustrating and animating. In the last year, “I’ve been doing a lot more art direction,” she says. “Reaching out to freelancers and guiding them through the process of doing a doodle. It’s been teaching me a lot about how to communicate about art.”

Of the challenges presented in directing somebody else’s work, she says: “It’s respecting where somebody is coming from and respecting why they chose to make that decision. And if I don’t agree with it, I try to think about whether I’m disagreeing based on my own taste or because it objectively could be better.”

So how is a Google Doodle created? “Google has more than 100 offices around the world, and each of those offices is in different countries, so we have people from those countries help us come up with ideas for their country,” she says. “They submit ideas and we pitch our own, and based on those ideas, my team comes up with the list and assigns people.” Each year, the department has a comprehensive planning session, reviewing all the ideas that come through and deciding which ones would be good for doodle illustrations. “That process lasts a couple of months because there are a lot of moving parts. We’re trying to make sure that we come up with ideas that are inclusive and representative of different groups because history is not very inclusive, so if we just go by a history book we won’t really achieve that.” She continues: “We have a group of six people on my team who are looking at all the topics and reading everything that’s readily available about that person or event to make sure it’s a good subject to do a doodle for. As in, they didn’t do anything super illegal or offensive in their lifetime that might be questionable. I think that is one of the most time-consuming parts.”

Not all doodles are global; many are local or national. “It depends on the to-pic and how relevant it is to people,” she says. “A topic like Albert Einstein would be relevant all over the world. So even if it comes from one country, we can add it to others. A lot of it is decided by people who work for Google in other countries.”

A sense of what has global reach and what is region specific can be understood through a trawl through Google Doodles archives (google.com/doodle). Doodles celebrating International Women’s Day have a wider reach than, say, one celebrating World Cup 2018 champion France, whose illustration was limited to their winning country. Probably the most global of doodles goes to Earth Day, which Diao worked on in 2016 and 2017. “I received a lot of good reactions from those,” she says. “In 2016, I did five random illustrations [about Earth’s biomes]… A lot of people said they were moved seeing the polar bear with ice melting around it.” In 2017, she created a 12-panel slideshow highlighting the issue of climate change that focused on how people can help the environment. Image panels ranged from carpooling to supporting renewable energy to planting trees. “Those were my two favourites that I worked on,” she says.

Each year, Google releases around 350 to 400 doodles. “The number of doodles that we’ve been outsourcing has increased in the last year,” Diao says. “For the most part we’re all based in the US… So if there’s a topic that’s relevant and local, we’re trying to see whether a local artist could bring a little of their own perspective to it… We’re starting with four regions and then will expand. We’re also measuring how much work it is for us to art direct and seeing what it’s like for our team to grow in this way. That’s very external, we’re not bringing in new people as much, we’re hiring outside the team.”

What the team looks for in an artist’s portfolio is their ability to draw. “A good portfolio will have enough in it when you can kind of see what they could do if they were given a different topic,” she explains. “We look for people who have portraits in their portfolios – a lot of the time we’re celebrating people.” Interestingly, any person honoured as a Google Doodle must be deceased.

Diao’s mother and father moved to America from China about 26 years ago, hopping from Missouri to Michigan to Pennsylvania before the family settled in Fremont, California. “I was always interested in drawing,” she says. “No one in my family is artistic. My mum is more into performing arts – she karaoke sings all the time.” Her dad, a mechanical engineer, runs a manufacturing business. “My parents were supportive of my taking art classes. I had learned about animation online, Disney, Pixar. My favourite when I was a kid was The Aristocats… I was pretty much consuming comics and TV shows at an alarming rate. In fourth or fifth grade, I was going to an after-sschool programme and a lot of kids were passing around comics. I started reading them and got really into them. They had English translation. It was like a kind of currency… I channeled drawing in this area: those are the types of characters I can draw, these are the types of situations and actions. Things like that.” Introduced to Photoshop in seventh grade, “I mostly just learned from seeing other people’s work and seeing them talk about the technique they were using,” she says.

While experimenting with different artistic mediums, she consistently drew for pleasure in her own time. “I think I was six or seven when I took my first art class. I went to this woman in Michigan. She had an art studio that she ran out of her house and she taught me how to draw with pencils and then paint with acrylics. She was so supportive and my parents were really happy,” she says, adding, “I also had to learn piano and go to Chinese school every week.” She continued with art classes until middle school, when her parents wanted her to concentrate more on academic pursuits. “They wanted me to focus on studying hard but I was drawing. I can’t even remember doing my homework.” She was editor in chief of the school newspaper, also contributing a few graphic opinion pieces akin to political cartoons. After finishing school, she applied to Character Animation at the California Institute of the Arts, which is basically like a film school, she says. Completing that four year diploma parlayed into her full-time job at Google.

Ten years ago, Google launched “Doodle 4 Google,” a competition for school students to create their own illustrations. They’re voted for by the public and the winner has the opportunity to gain a college scholarship, a monetary award for their school, plus travel to Google’s HQ. Their winning entry also appears on the search homepage for 24 hours.

Not only is this a useful way to get kids involved with a technology brand they’ve grown up with, but it also offers them the chance to travel from home and take part in the wider creative field, perhaps opening doors to a future at Google. It’s a thoughtful initiative by a brand which, inspired by a simple drawing in 1998, started a department that now creates some of the most talked-about illustrations and animations around the world.

Bill at Presidio Social Club:

1 Half a Dozen Oysters $19.50
1 Tuna Poke $17
1 Eggplant Fries $11
1 Soup of the Day $9
1 Aperol Spritz $12.50
1 Espresso $3.25
Total: $72.25

Words: Marina Kay
Images: Vincent Long