What makes a holiday a holiday? Or, what makes a holiday worthy of a celebratory logo on the world’s most popular website like Google? This question recently prompted me to talk with Michael Lopez, Google’s lead logo designer, to find an answer.
September 19, for instance, is Rosh Hashanah. You’ll see synagogues celebrating the Jewish New Year and you’ll hear the “Shana tova!” greeting on the streets of New York. But if Google is true to form, you won’t find it a special Google logo marking the day. In the past, however, you will have found Google celebrations of both the Persian and Chinese New Year observances.
Most Google users probably see the cute little drawings marking a special event as just that—cute. And cute seems to be exactly what Google is aiming for.
“We have a group of Googlers that select the doodles that appear on Google,” Lopez told me in an e-mail.
The answers to all of my questions had the same sing-song assonance. “We gather ideas for doodles from Googlers and from our users,” wrote Lopez. “The doodle selection process aims to celebrate interesting events and anniversaries around the world that reflect Google’s personality and love of innovation.”
I can buy that. Past “Google doodles” have celebrated the birthdays of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (May 22), who invented the modern detective formula, Edvard “The Scream” Munch (Dec. 12) and Opera great Luciano Pavarotti (Oct. 12).
That architect Frank Lloyd Wright (June 8) and abstract artist René Magritte (Nov. 21) both got “doodles” makes you wonder if some well-placed “Googler” is a Paul Simon fan—he wrote songs about both. But then Google seems to like architects and off-the-beaten-path artists: witness the “doodles” for Walter Gropius (May 18), Diego Velázquez, (June 6), and Andy Warhol (Aug. 6).
But not as much as they love astronomers. Giovanni Schiaparelli (March 14), Percival Lowell (March 13), cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (March 9) and Sputnik (Oct. 4) have each gotten a Google Doodle.
There is a clear skew toward the scientific in Google doodles. Scientists from Leonardo da Vinci (April 15) to Charles Darwin (Feb. 12) get mentions. Religious figures from Mohammed to Mother Teresa do not. The only religious figures regularly enshrined in logos are Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Patrick—but both are celebrated for their secular legacies, not their religious accomplishments. The only other religious figure I find in the history of Google logos is St. George, shown in storybook form with his dragon.
Easter is given an egg or bunny theme but otherwise Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious holidays haven’t merited mention yet—Christmas and Hanukah get “Season’s Greetings” treatment.
So, what’s the big deal? Google is a company whose biggest asset is an algorithm. It’s not surprising that such a company chooses its holidays according to computer-geek criteria.
But the sheer number and variety of Google’s holidays make the absence of religion stick out like a bruised reed.