The Google logo that scrap of oddball typography is perhaps the most famous piece of graphic design in the world today. Milton Glaser's "I 'Heart' New York" may have a prior claim, and the Coca-Cola script, the Nike tick (or swoosh) and the Mercedes roundel undoubtedly enjoy greater global "penetration" (to use the aggressive language of marketing), but for the web-surfing millions, the Google logo occupies a position of unrivalled prominence.
Google's corporate value is staggering. Despite a recent dip in their stock-market value, Google's financial gigantism places it alongside some of the biggest corporations in the world. Odd then, that it should have a folksy logo that looks more like a school project than the mark of a global corporation. And a logo that changes with astonishing frequency, too.
I began to think about the Google logo (having previously, and with a good deal of superiority, dismissed it as hopelessly amateur) when I noticed clients mentioning it, and telling me how much they liked its frequent graphic makeovers. These comments usually came from hard-nosed business people who'd no sooner allow their own logos to be messed around with, than turn up at a board meeting wearing only a loincloth. Something about Google's playfulness was getting through to these sober business types.
Even The Times recently ran a half-page story on the mutating Google logo: "The Google masthead is altered to mark special occasions about 50 times a year, with the chosen subject brought to the attention of millions during its 24 hours of fame." The Times' story was prompted by Google's use of a Braille rendition of its logo to commemorate the birthday of Louis Braille: for 24 hours, the letters in the word "Google" were replaced by dots.
The article goes on to describe the work of Dennis Hwang. Dennis is a Google webmaster, but he is also the "Google Doodler," and the man responsible for the graphic transformations of the logo. The Times credits Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin as the originators of the idea of a transforming logo: "They posted a drawing of a Burning Man to alert Google's then-modest band of users that they would be at the festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, and would not be in to answer the telephone if the website crashed. Mr. Hwang has since adapted the logo to mark everything from World AIDS Day to the Transit of Venus."
The Google website gives great prominence to Dennis Hwang's graphic endeavours, but fails to mention who created the original logo. The font is Catull, designed by Gustav Jaeger for Berthold, and is described as "a display face with a strong calligraphic influence. A large x-height and well-defined contrast make this face most suitable for advertising and display work."
Catull's calligraphic origins are only faintly discernible in the Google logo: the use of a soft-drop shadow, and the chamfer-effect on the letterforms themselves, turns it into a DTP classic: the sort of hybrid creation that tech-heads choose for the front covers of reports. In truth, the logo is weedy, corny and ill-conceived. It's the same with the Google homepage a brutal display of functionality. Clearly, no graphic designer has been near it. Compare it to the home pages of other large corporations, and its obvious that Google has avoided hiring slick design companies and serious branding consultants. It looks like they've just gone and done it themselves.
And yet, I think there's something magnificent about Google's lack of design. There's something defiant, almost obtuse about its reluctance to indulge in the sort of oleaginous branding and design that is now the corporate norm. We've reached a point, in the homogenized West, where good graphic design is everywhere. The battle has been won: every business knows it needs good design you don't have to tell them anymore. It's enshrined in the business schools, established in the corporate HQs. Even small businesses understand that good design is good for business. It's a universal truth, like "customer service" and "value for money," and all the other boardroom nostrums that drive modern commerce.
But the consequence of all this feel-good business is that design has become, more often than not, a badge of mediocrity. The old Modernist dream of good design standing for rationality and human values has been flipped. Today, good design is little more than a cosmetic agent, an obscuring agent. When I see my favorite sandwich bar introduce a slick new fascia and smart window decals, a little wave of disappointment runs through me. You don't see the work of sign writers any more; it's hard to find handmade signs and ramshackle window displays. The urban environment is now over-designed. It's all too branded, too inhuman.
So, Google, you might be behaving disgracefully over your willingness to acquiesce to China's demands for censorship, but keep your wonky little logo (and for that matter, your austere, ad-free homepage). In its own small way, the Google chameleon has become a little beacon of insurrection, a symbol of strength in a world in which graphic designers have become the agents of conformity.