By: Brian Bergstein, AP Business Writer
(AP) During the Olympics, when a speed-skating fox, a bear pushing a curling stone, and other cutesy images adorned the “Google” logo on the popular Internet search engine, hundreds of users wrote in to compliment the art department.
That provoked a lot of laughs at Google headquarters, because the “art department” is just one guy: Dennis Hwang, a 23-year-old Web programmer who whips up the cartoons in his spare time, usually for holidays.
“I think your readers are going to be disappointed it’s just me,” Hwang said with a smile during an interview last week in the “Googleplex,” the company’s cheerful offices in Mountain View.
Hwang’s designs are simple, befitting the spare nature of Google’s site. They cleverly remind Google’s tens of millions of users that real people, not just soulless computers, are working behind the scenes.
Hwang’s signature move is to coyly play off the letters in “Google,” especially those two “O”s no doodler could resist.
He has turned them into pumpkins, globes, a Nobel Prize medal, a hockey puck, and a stopwatch. For New Year’s, he had a rabbit and bird hold signs reading “2” next to each “O” so the image displayed “2002.”
The “L” often becomes a flagpole, such as on Bastille Day, when it supported a French banner.
Sometimes every letter gets involved. Hwang honored Claude Monet’s birthday last year by giving the logo a muted watercolor look, with little lily pads underneath. That one is his favorite, partly because he did it in just 30 minutes while sick with a fever.
Hwang majored in art at Stanford University, with a minor in computer science. But for these frivolous designs he relies more on skills he developed while growing up in South Korea, where often he found himself doodling in his notebooks instead of listening to teachers.
“I can always refer back to my childhood hobby,” he said.
Hwang’s role as Google’s in-house artist came about accidentally.
The site’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, altered the logo from time to time. In 1998, when Google had just a small following, Brin and Page put the stick-figure image of the Burning Man festival behind the second “O” to indicate they would be off for a while at the counterculture gathering in the Nevada desert.
As Google’s popularity soared because of its unique method of ranking search results by relevance, Brin and Page hired an outside artist to tinker with the logo around holidays.
Not long after Hwang started working for Google in 2000, he developed a reputation as a skillful and creative Web designer, and people knew he had majored in art.
So someone asked him to take a Fourth of July logo submitted by the outside designer and make it more lighthearted and playful. Hwang added some cartoons of three celebrating forefathers.
Brin and Page loved it, and Hwang had a new side job.
Now the site’s assistant Webmaster, Hwang comes up with many of his own designs — he watched the Olympics specifically to scout for ideas. Some are commissioned by his boss, Karen White.
They have to get approval from Brin, who rubs his chin as he scans the designs, and then either says “OK” or sends Hwang back to the drawing board.
Google can block users in specific countries from seeing logos they might not appreciate. For example, Hwang replaced the first “O” with a poppy to honor Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom, but only British users saw it.
And even though Hwang avoids overtly religious or political themes, some users still take the designs quite seriously.
One e-mailed to complain that a Chinese New Year image appeared to be “satanic.” When autumn leaves appeared in a Thanksgiving design, someone in Australia huffed that it was spring Down Under. Other people lamented that there was nothing for Christmas.
“No matter what we do, we know we’re missing something,” White said. “It’s quite the balancing act.”
Some of Hwang’s art can be seen at http://www.google.com/doodle5.html and http://www.google.com/holidaylogos.html.