In the not-so-distant past I had the tremendous honor of catching up with Michael Lopez, Google’s Web Design Lead, by phone to ask him a few questions about designing the famous Google doodles. Michael is part of a small team of designers who are responsible for changing the Google logo into an exciting work of art on special occasions. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like working for Google, you’ll get a lot out of our conversation. Michael and his team spend their time brainstorming about upcoming doodles, oftentimes getting their ideas down by drawing or writing on a white board (I think people who regularly use white boards are just smarter… like me!) or even a scrap of paper. What you find below is a transcript of our phone conversation.
This interview was actually originally published on my now-defunt blog Freelance Review, but it was too good to go to waste so I’m resurrecting it here for you to enjoy. Looking back I have to say it was a bit disconcerting having a member of Google’s PR team listening in, but I think it turned out great in the end.
What’s your design background and how did you originally get started with design?
Well I was always an artist. When I was really little, as far as I can remember, I was drawing on my mother’s bedroom walls or making art out of my food, so I definitely have had a great interest in art and mostly started out wanting to be a gallery artist and then had an interest in graphic design and Web design as I got a lot older and that just turned into falling back to my roots with art and illustration. Becoming a doodler within Google was definitely a really exciting thing for me because I got to kind of mend both of those aspects of my artistic skill that I really loved which was being able to do graphic design as well as being able to do illustration as well. So those two things I think I’ve actually loved since I was younger. At Google I’ve found a way to do what I love.
How did you arrive at Google? Did you apply? Were you recruited? How did it happen?
Well it was kind of a fun story actually. A friend of mine was a designer here at Google and I came to Google under his advice. When we first started out we did a lot of fun and interesting products with Google being a younger company then. I just had no idea that it was going to turn into something so big and so fun and I was asked to start contributing to the doodle process and everything just kind of took off from there. We started doing a lot more doodles and doing a lot more design projects relative to our products and it’s just been a lot of fun.
What are some of your daily responsibilities at Google?
The number one thing is that we have fun. It’s my biggest rule. I always come into work and I always try to have as much fun as possible with the team and making sure we get all those crazy ideas out of our heads that may or may not turn into doodles or designs. Aside from that one of the things we do is brainstorm new concepts and new doodle ideas. We’re part of a small design team that handles a lot of the visual and graphic elements that you see on Google.com as well as the doodles themselves. I think a lot of it has to do with either creating these illustrations or creating these doodles and brainstorming about them and working with different clients and product teams to get those things done.
Where does your inspiration for new Google Doodles come from?
It depends a lot on the doodle itself — we draw inspiration from all over. A lot of tmes we throw ideas on the board and just try to come up with something new and fresh that people might not have seen before, but a lot of times we like to look to other artists or other themes for inspiration like Norman Rockwell is my favorite artist or illustrator of all time and I look a lot to him for inspiration with mood and lighting and all that, but a lot of times I’ll look to graphic design as well for inspiration for visual design and color and theme and mood and stuff like that. It really does come from all over and of course I get a lot of inspiration from the other members of my team who are really talented as well.
You mentioned Norman Rockwell – do you have any other design mentors or heroes?
Definitely Norman Rockwell. There’s an artist right now, his name is James Jean, who’s really really amazing, you may have heard of him, but he did a lot of comic book stuff earlier on, and I think he’s really amazing, he’s got a really great style and his work is so diverse, I think that’s one of the things that I love about his work, whereas Norman Rockwell has this very specific style, and James Jean has this really kind of diverse style that he uses with all of his different pieces. So I think those are my two main sources of inspiration right now and of course my son is probably also a big source of inspiration for me, he’s a little guy and he always comes home from school and has a new piece of artwork that I look at and say, “Hey man, maybe that might be a good doodle, you mind if I borrow that for a second?” and the kid never sees it again, but it’s fun.
What’s your favorite Google Doodle that you’ve designed so far and what do you like most about it?
I think definitely my favorite was the H.G. Wells doodle series we did recently. H.G. Wells is definitely one of my favorite science fiction artists but a side story before that is Orson Welles actually did a pretty fun radio piece that was based off of the War of the Worlds. He entertained a bunch of people thinking that UFOs were invading and played a little bit of a game on the radio and we tried to do a similar thing with the doodles and we wanted to create a buzz so we had a UFO show up one day, we had crop circles show up the next and it was all leading up to the final culmination of aliens taking over the Google logo which was kind of a fun interpretation of the book and it paid homage to H.G. Wells. That was a lot of fun for me because I got to take one of my favorite genres and translate it into a Google doodle.
What kind of hardware and software do you work on?
For software it depends, sometimes we’ll use Photoshop, sometimes we’ll use Painter, but all of our work is done on a drawing tablet, as far as the hard line work. A lot of times what we’ll do though, depending on the piece or depending on the artwork, we’ll use pretty much anything in our environment to compose a composition for the doodles. For example, the other day I think we were trying to figure out what a doodle might look like if we built it out of staples and crunched up pieces of paper, so the idea is definitely to start there, but the final implementation ends with our drawing tablets and either one of those two drawing programs.
What does your office setup look like?
Definitely on the Googleplex and my office space is not that interesting at all actually. I like things really, really clean and it’s really weird because the people that I sit with, their desks are just flooded with little toys and trinkets and posters and artwork and mine just has maybe my sons picture on my desk and that’s about it. It’s really kind of boring and I apologize. I should actually spill a cup of coffee there or something to give it some character now that I think about it. But the fun thing about Google is we’ll find ourselves working pretty much everywhere, I mean, we’ll have an idea and because we have these tablets we’ll basically stop ourselves in a hallway, jump on a bean bag and sketch out some ideas, so I’d say if I’m in the Googleplex my office is pretty much everywhere.
What one piece of technology could you not make it through the day without?
I definitely think without music and my music player that I would not be able to survive, because a lot of inspiration comes from music for me and also helps me kind of pass the time and think of new and amazing ideas, so definitely without a music player I’d be a zombie for sure.
What do you enjoy most about your job and why?
The thing I enjoy the most is our users and their reaction to the doodles. It’s so much fun to be able to come up with these ideas and concepts and share them with Google users and get that same reaction and emotion or excitement that they get when we’re actually creating the doodles. I think the entire team feels that way and that’s what kind of drives us because we’re just trying to have fun with the doodles and have fun with our logo and when we get those reactions from our users that they appreciate what we’re doing and they’re having just as much fun as we do that’s definitely what we aim to do.