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Dennis Hwang's drawings are viewed by nearly 180 million people a day. He's one of the most important graphic designers in the business world. And yet the mild-mannered 29-year-old keeps a low profile--and devotes only a small fraction of his time to his art.
Hwang is the Google doodler, the man whose hand-drawn alterations of the search engine's logo commemorate holidays, artists' birthdays, and other random events that the company deems important. In June, 2004, a French astronomer sent Hwang an e-mail explaining that within 24 hours Venus would pass in front of the sun--the first time it had happened in 122 years. Quickly, Hwang mocked up a version of the Google logo where the second "O" had become a sun with a black spot on it representing Venus. He showed the design to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google's co-founders, who liked it. "We are a geeky company, so it was an easy sell," says Hwang. "Within a few hours, I had posted the doodle and we were alerting the world to this cool event."
A former art-computer science double-major at Stanford University, Hwang is also now Google's Webmaster. He devotes 80% to 90% of his time to managing the team of 30 people who maintain Google's Web pages in more than 100 languages. His doodles, about 50 a year, are dashed off using an electronic tablet that translates his scrawlings onto his screen.
Hwang's whimsical designs serve a serious business function. Google's multi-colored Google logo is just as important a branding device as Apple's apple. As Google balloons into a powerful and controversial tech behemoth (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/30/07, "Google Is Making You Dumber"), the doodles humanize the company. With their rough, hand-drawn look, they hark back to the company's experimental, nimble, intellectual, and fanciful startup legacy. "The doodles let Google wink at their audience," says Bill Gardner, founder of LogoLounge.com, a site that covers trends in corporate logo design.
Born in Knoxville, Tenn., Hwang also spent part of his youth living in a Seoul suburb. As a junior at Stanford in 2000, his residential adviser asked him to be an assistant Webmaster at a then-little-known search engine startup named Google. He started as a summer intern and then worked 40 hours a week his senior year while completing his undergraduate degree.
By that time, Google had already experimented with doodles. The first one was done by Brin and Page in 1999 when they left for the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. Hwang started doodling almost by accident. "It was simply because I was an art major in a very small company," he recalls. His first design honored Bastille Day in 2000.
To plan his doodles, Hwang meets quarterly with a team of vice-presidents and creative directors. People now expect a doodle on certain holidays, like Thanksgiving. "For others, we look at the calendar and muse about what is happening around the world, interesting events or birthdays of people who have contributed something significant." Once he drafts a doodle, he shows it to Page and Brin. "Holding up my mockups and then holding my breath while Larry and Sergey do their 'thumbs-up, thumbs-down' emperor thing is never boring," wrote Hwang on a Google blog. "I love the fact that my little niche within this company turned out to be something so cool and creative and, well, Google-y."
Hwang also gets many ideas from enthusiastic users like the French astronomer. In 2005 librarians around the country lobbied Hwang for a National Library Week doodle. After he created one, he received a big care package complete with a librarian action figure that shushed.
Some doodles draw strong responses. An early design for Thanksgiving featured an innocuous turkey raking leaves. But it drew vitriolic responses from Brazil, Australia, and other parts of the Southern Hemisphere from users who accused Hwang of being Northern Hemisphere-centric. "That one taught me to think more broadly," he said. Another logo, for Michelangelo's birthday, proved to be a little too risqué for some users. "A lot of businessmen were startled when they pulled up the home page in client meetings and there was the nude David."
The afterlives of his doodles form Hwang's favorite stories. In 2003 he wove the double helix into Google's logo to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA. Recently, he met James Watson, one of the scientists who discovered DNA. "He asked me for a signed print of the Google DNA logo," says Hwang, his voice brimming with enthusiasm. "I couldn't believe it. My drawing had come full circle."
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By Aili McConnon