The History of the Google Doodle

While much of the population uses the Google search engine daily, the charming Google Doodle — a playful reconfiguration of the Google logo — offers interactive games and important history lessons entangled in its quaint designs.


Neptuna21, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The very first Google Doodle honors the eccentric event of Burning Man and marks the first of many unique creations.

When you think of Burning Man, an art festival for the eccentric, and the Google Doodle, you would probably not make a connection. What might these two things have in common? What many internet users may not know is the festival’s key part in inspiring the very first Google Doodle.

It began as an “out-of-office” message. 

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted to inform users of a possible server malfunction while they were attending Burning Man. So, they developed a light-heartened twist on the logo. The design they settled on was a mere stick figure set atop Google’s second “o.” Unbeknownst to the founders, this measly design change would develop into something much greater. 

In August 1996, just two years prior to the first doodle, co-creators Page and Brin launched Google with the help of Scott Hassan, a primary programmer of the search engine. They aimed to provide the public with a more efficient way of surfing the web. Today, this small start-up has made a worldwide impact. Now having over 3.5 billion searches per day, the company’s reach is apparent in the eyes of society today. However, it was the aforementioned phenomenon that occurred in 1998 that would jumpstart this beloved tradition of the Google Doodle. 

Although simple, the first doodle marked the start of a long chain of celebrations for other events, figures, holidays, and traditions. While the Google Doodle honors these things through a seemingly measly logo adaptation, the extensive design process and thousands of stories shared in its expansion beg to differ. 

From the accidental nature of the first doodle, the expansion of the Google Doodle was not immediate. For an entire two years following the Burning Man tribute, outside contractors composed each doodle. However, a special doodle arrived on July 14th, this time in celebration of Bastille Day. While Google celebrated many holidays up until this point, this one paved the way for the expansion of the doodle.

Imagine you’re Page and Brin, conceptualizing another charming doodle to plaster the home screen of your homepage. If not yourselves, who would you want as its creator? Well, regardless of your first thoughts, they put the design in the hands of an intern. Dennis Hwang, now a professional graphic artist, was the man for the job. Similar to the first, the 2000 graphic design was simplistic. Nonetheless, a popout phrase— ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ — meaning liberty, equality, fraternity — caught the eye. The French holiday celebrates the Storming of the Bastille, a monumental event during the French Revolution. This second doodle captured the essence of the holiday with grace. Hwang’s work was so well-received, it marked the start of the Google Doodle team.

Since those early days, Google has added even more designers, affectionately known as “doodlers.” One such person is artist Alyssa Winans. “I think my first doodle was Cevat Şakir Kabaağaçlı’s 125th Birthday. I actually wasn’t on the team at the time,” she pointed out, “it was a freelance assignment.” This early doodle of hers is a good example of the international reach of this work. While Google headquarters may be in California, this creation by Winans was exclusively released in Turkey to celebrate the notable novelist. “I’ll work up three sketches, which will be checked by local Googlers as well as the rest of the art team,” said Winans. “From there, I’ll progress to final, with one more check-in once the color is complete.” With this organized creative process, the scale of the doodle has surpassed its humble origins. With this, what are other modern examples of the doodle’s creative scope? 

What other stories have the doodle honored? Who else have they spotlighted? More importantly, why should we know their names?

“For me personally, there’s also sometimes doodles that tie into my personal interests,” said Winans. “For example, I got to do the Ruth Asawa doodle.”

Ruth Asawa, artist extraordinaire, was celebrated on May 1st, 2019 in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Whether or not you know her, her legacy is a brilliant one. 

Asawa was a Japanese-American artist living in the U.S. during World War II. In 1942, her father was interned at a detention camp. She did not see him for six years. When she tried to pursue her interests in student teaching, she was denied because of her Japanese ethnicity.

The stigma against Japanese Americans was destructive during this time. 

Nonetheless, Asawa attended the inclusive Black Mountain College. There, she continued what she loved, and she kept creating. Her sculptures are now featured in the Guggenheim and Whitney Museum.

De Young Museum’s permanent collection thoughtfully showcases Asawa’s unique styles today in her hometown of San Francisco. (Alexandra Courtis, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Winans chose to pay homage to Asawa’s work in her own doodle design, transforming the Google logo into Asawa’s signature ornate wiring sculptures. Despite Asawa’s death in 2013, the innovation and beauty of her work as an educator and a sculptor live on. In Asawa’s own words as displayed on her website, “Learn something. Apply it. Pass it on so it is not forgotten.”

In other regards to powerful figures, the Google Doodle makes strides for inclusivity by elevating awareness of many important people, especially those often hidden from the public sphere of knowledge. Daredevil Kitty O’Neil. Trans-icon Cláudia Celeste. Powerful poet Audre Lorde. Just like Asawa, these individuals faced much adversity, and their accomplishments deserve to be amplified. The doodlers create a platform for their stories to be told. 

Winans also recently created the doodle for this year’s International Women’s Day. “I know the full experience of what it means to be a woman certainly can’t all be captured in one image,” said Winans in a Q&A conducted by Google, “so I hope it’s merely a jumping off point to reflect on how broad, complex, nuanced, and powerful the notion of womanhood is.” The importance of this holiday sparks conversation and brings to light the achievements of women regardless of doubt or stigma. This message extends to the doodle’s celebration of the many roles women take on in the world — from doctors to mothers to politicians — and honors their worth. “I clicked into the design and noticed how they included important information about women’s history. I felt proud to be a woman,” said Florence Chan ’25. The simple appreciation produces a powerful feat, bridging together communities to support women across the world.

Perhaps the most popular aspect of the doodle, however, was introduced on May 21st, 2010. In celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of Pac-Man’s inception, Google Doodle released its first-ever playable game. The nostalgic burst of fun transformed the homepage, allowing all visitors to enter the world of the simple arcade game. 

But how exactly do the doodle designers work with game engineers? “We’ll form a small development team for each game, so the artists and engineers will be working together from concept stage until final launch,” said Winans. This teamwork was especially necessary — on a much larger scale — in the ‘Champion Island Games,’ an event in celebration of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. 

In this game, you are Lucky the Cat going on an adventure to Champion Island. Right as you arrive, you are let free to discover the colorful aspects of the Japanese-influenced island, while playing seven different mini-games along the way.

Some may scoff at the playability and complexities (or lack thereof) a free browser game can provide. However, the multi-month-long adventure gives users an easy-to-play experience along with nostalgic 8-bit graphics — much of this was achievable through the collaboration with Studio 4○C, a Tokyo-based animation studio. The extent of collaboration needed for the doodle is immense and often pays homage to other cultures. Approximately 3.05 billion people in the world watched the 2020 Olympics. But, how much did they all understand of the folklore behind its host city? “We’re pleased that we were able to allude to various stories from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south in the doodle,” said Studio 4○C in a Google Q&A.

The doodle may teach the general public fascinations of the world, but what about the creators? Millions around the world may witness their work, but what exactly goes on behind the scenes to understand the nuance of cultures and stories?

Sometimes it starts more locally. For the Ruth Asawa doodle, the research had a jump start. “She worked in [San Francisco],” said Winans, “and as an artist herself, I’d often seen her work in museums — so I probably started with a little more personal knowledge there.” Still, this process for the doodlers also often extends beyond the boundaries of typical American culture. The scope and immense history behind the doodle oftentimes prove even more complex.  

‘Celebrating Mbira,’ for example, took a team of thirty.

This doodle, unveiled on May 21st, 2020 shined a light on the mbira, the national instrument of Zimbabwe, and its unique complexities.  Upon clicking into the design, you’re greeted with the soft sounds of the mbira to the tune of ‘Nhemamusasa,’ a traditional mbira song. In this doodle, you’re a young Shona girl first discovering the beauty of the instrument. You play the mbira four different ways throughout the course of the girl’s life: from using bottle caps to playing in an electric band, the versatility and timelessness of the mbira take center stage.

“In terms of personal history or tradition, we often work with art freelancers in the country the doodle is launching in if it’s a cultural topic that they may have had a more personal connection to,” said Winans. With this particular doodle, the team took an even larger step. They traveled to Zimbabwe. The team studied a wide variety of the cultural elements that surround the mbira. From exploring and sketching the brilliance of the natural Zimbabwean landscape to talking with local musicians, the process was intricate.

It’s worth understanding this vast effort to bring attention to the culture surrounding the instrument. Personally, I came across it back in 2020. I had no knowledge of the colorful and heartwarming trail on which I would be led. Playing the game is one experience, but unlocking the full story is another. “It feels very immersive, and I definitely think it was a passion project for the creators,” said Monica Reilly ’24. 

However, the doodle isn’t exclusively a piece to be observed. Back in 2008, the doodle team decided to extend the joy of creativity into the hands and minds of children across the nation. Thus, that year marked the first-ever Doodle 4 Google. Every year, children in grades 3-12 are invited to design their own doodle in response to a prompt. “I am strong because…” “What I see for the future…” What these prompts illustrate is a promise of hope from the younger generation. Rather than a menial art competition on a scale of technicality, communities are brought together to honor the potential of every participant. 

The doodle in its current state aims to promote inclusivity and education of people from all walks of life. Beyond the design, the stories the doodle tells give users not only the facts but a unique reflection of themselves. Diversity is vital to foster new outlooks and teach important lessons through the lens of inspiring individuals. This message is often a point of discussion with diversity in the workplace or in popular media, but the doodle cultivates a widespread mindset of the small strides for inclusivity. 

Even a glance at the creativity of the doodle elicits a sense of curiosity. Whether that moment is one spark of admiration or hours filled with gameplay, the doodle goes noticed. “There were still so many incredible people that contributed to the world we know today that may never have had their moment before. We work hard to try and elevate those voices and communities worldwide,” said Winans.

“In terms of personal history or tradition, we often work with art freelancers in the country the doodle is launching in if it’s a cultural topic that they may have had a more personal connection to,” said Winans.