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Getting paid to daydream and doodle

What’s it like being paid to doodle every day? TheJournal.ie finds out…

This year's St Patrick's Day doodle featured moving Irish dancers.
This year's St Patrick's Day doodle featured moving Irish dancers.
Image: Google via Website

WHAT STARTED OUT as an in-joke back in Google’s early days, the doodle has now become a central tenet of the company’s everyday business.

“Our main objective is to do things that are surprising, delightful, entertaining, educational and, often, a little nerdy,” explains professional doodler Kevin Laughlin in a recent interview with TheJournal.ie.

Although elevated traffic can be a nice bonus from a successful homepage, it’s not all about hits, he says.

“The ones that allow for sharing do get a lot of attention (think the Les Paul guitar interactive) but success is also when someone has a powerful emotional response to a poet, artist or someone we’re celebrating. As opposed to someone fiddling around with a game.”

In fact, the young artist’s favourite doodle is one he had a personal reaction to.

“Before I joined the team, I was on my computer and a doodle for the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges popped up. He is not terribly known outside literary circles but I felt like Google knew me and what I wanted.”

The doodle to celebrate the 112th birthday of the fantastical writer and poet.

“For me, that is the biggest thing we do. We show the company’s personal side, the human touch,” continues Laughlin.

Not really born as a corporate idea, Google founders Larry and Sergey first played around with the Google homepage in August 1998 before they attended the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. They placed a stickman drawing behind the second ‘o’ in Google to indicate they were ‘out of the office’.

From there, the idea spiralled and the pair used the homepage to mark holidays in America, including Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Today, there is a whole team of doodlers, paid to come up with concepts and drawings. They work with local doodle managers or cultural consultants.

These cultural consultants give feedback about what’s going on in a particular market or country. But ideas can also come from users or doodlers themselves.

And then, yes, the doodlers spend most of the day daydreaming and doodling. That can be either sketching ideas, working in photoshop or polishing almost-finished doodles.

For Laughlin, it is a hobby-turned-full-time-job. “My parents said I started when I was just two years old and when I graduated High School (in Texas), I applied to the the Rhode Island School of Design in 2011.”

He also interned at a gaming company which made him a perfect fit for Google when he applied for the job last summer.

Over the years, Google’s doodles have become more adventurous. The San Francisco Ballet performed live for a video to mark the anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in May 2010, PacMan got the very first interactive Google homepage game and, most ambitiously, the Stanislaw Lem doodle on 23 November 2011 included a complex platform game that could be played.

Missed it? Have a go now.

For Laughlin, the simpler doodles can still hold just as much magic.

“I like them both for different reasons. You can’t do interactive for everything,” he explains. “You have to think about what is right for the doodle. If we’re celebrating a children’s book illustrator, his or her work came to us in a static form. That will then be the best way to remember that person. If it is an inventor or animator, we can show their contributions in motion.”

In the past nine months, the Texas native has worked on countless doodles – some take just a few days, others a few months – but he is particularly proud of two homepages.

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The first marked the 61st birthday of Douglas Adams, the man behind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“We didn’t try to encompass his entire work in the doodle but we found it interesting and appealing.” He collaborated with fellow doodler Sophia Foster-Dimino, who said: “The Guide’s task of organizing the galaxy’s information struck a chord with us, which is why we gave it special attention in our doodle. Through it, you can get a small peek into the unrelentingly hilarious universe created by Douglas Adams.”

Laughlin’s second pick was a more interactive doodle that celebrated the zamboni machine.

Play the game here.

“It was an interactive game that you could play on your browser. It was an ice-resurfacing game which referenced old 8-bit games from the SNES. That one was great for that reason, a way to celebrate the amazing invention and reference old video games. It was a combination of information and nerdiness.”

Looking forward to future plans, Laughlin promises the team are always searching for ways to “push boundaries without having to wait forever for the Google homepage to load”.

But he might have some competition from some Irish kids. The doodler was in Dublin this week to judge the Doodle4Google competition which was won by Donegal student Annie Coyle from St. Bernadette’s Special School in Letterkenny.

The winner in the Doodle4Google competition.

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