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Look Harder

Dr. Percy Lavon Julian

If you are intrigued by today's doodle on the U.S. Google homepage, celebrating organic chemist, Dr. Percy Julian, I can provide no better recommendation than to watch the PBS documentary, Forgotten Genius, illustrating both his personal life and life's work. If you prefer to read vs watch, Michael Cavna of Comic Riffs at the Washington Post always writes the most insightful – on the verge of poetic – profiles on the folks we celebrate.

It's no scientific revelation that it's the experiences from our everyday lives that inform our work, and in Dr. Julian's case, he used these experiences, overcoming tremendous challenges and racial barriers (and even a couple happy accidents) to become one of the most renowned and highly respected chemists in history.

Visually, I was presented with a familiar challenge: to create something fun and engaging for us non-science types (I confess to finding a way of skipping chemistry in high school), while still calling attention to Julian's key achievements in an appropriate (ie. correct and validated!) way. Before getting too far into the research, I sketched thumbnails of a common association – that of a chemist in a lab full of beakers and tubes:

As I read more about his work, I became fascinated with his process in the specific field of organic chemistry, and how he discovered ways to take rare and exotic components and synthesize them or discover alternate organic substances in place of more cost-prohibitive resources. Yep, that's a mouthful! So here are two key examples: His most well known triumph was the synthesis of the alkaloid, physostigmine, found in the african calabar bean, which led to a more readily available treatment of ailments such as glaucoma and Alzheimer's Disease. He also pioneered many uses from the soybean and soybean oil, developing a better process for obtaining cortisone to treat arthritis or to aid the body in the receiving of organ transplants. 

With these amazing feats in mind, I began to play with the idea of the chemical potential in plants, going as far as to have beakers growing on soy plants, or leaves growing out of metal tubes.

However, I decided clever metaphors (or just really bad puns) wasn't really the best way to go. But I did want to maintain a lighter graphical treatment, hopefully appealing to young future scientists. Combining that aesthetic with something resembling diagrams out of a school textbook was the direction I took, which felt appropriate considering the obstacles Julian personally overcame in receiving his own education.

Happy 115th birthday to the NOT Forgotten Genius, Dr. Percy Lavon Julian!


Dorothy Irene Height

Dorothy Irene Height was a giant in the Civil Rights and Women's Rights movements.  When it came to honoring her with a Google Doodle, there was no doubt in our minds that we should do one, but the question of how was something we considered for quite some time.

"Portrait" doodles are a lot like illustrations you see on currency or stamps. There's definitely an air of dignity and reverence about them and while a bit atypical to the the quirkier things we celebrate, such as Pac-Man or Dr. Who, there is still room to make them stand out creatively. You can see here that I haven't gotten that far yet. It's just a scanned in drawing with some digital touch-ups to darken things up a bit. 

I looked to the trends of magazine illustrations in the 60s happening around the same time of the Civil Rights movement. One thing I really like about this era in illustration is the ability to take photo referenced images, then mash them together in graphically interesting ways, utilizing line, value, lost and found edges, pattern, etc.

My three heroes from that era – from top left, clockwise: Bernie Fuchs, Mark English, Bob Peak. I actually learned some of the drybrush look that Mark English invented from my mentor (and close friend of English), Bill Maughan. Mark even visited my class once. He nodded at a head drawing I was working on... good or bad, I dunno.I wanted to utilize this technique to call out several things regarding Dorothy Height:  

  1. To depict not just her, but her cause. In this case, represented by the marching crowd of women alongside her.
  2. The marching crowd becomes an abstract series of dots, making their way into the form of her portrait – she was the voice of many.
  3. She often wore beautiful, large, ornate, purple hats. She wore these throughout her life, but was most often photographed in them at a later age. The purple dominates the color scheme of the doodle. The hat usually seen on an older Dorothy Height being seen here on a younger Dorothy Height signifies her being an advocate for change her entire life.

Michael Cavna of the Washington Post wrote a very elegant piece on Dr. Height, illustrating her life with words my paintbrushes were incapable of rendering.

top: Seen with President Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act. below: President Obama signs a bill in her honor

Happy 102nd, Dr. Dorothy Irene Height!


Behind the scenes: John Steinbeck Doodle

The doodle started out simple enough: Illustrate my favorite book, Travels With Charley. For those who haven't read it, John Steinbeck takes a truck camper and his standard poodle Charley, and drives around America. 

caption courtesy of Nicolette Wood


That could have been the whole doodle right there (and of course there is a lot more to the story itself), but you can't really do a doodle for John Steinbeck and not feature something as monumental as The Grapes of Wrath. 2014 also marks the 75th anniversary of Grapes' publication, so that pretty much sealed it. My solution was to feature both, as well as a few other well-known books, with one letter in each title coming forward to spell Google. 

I thought these initial spot illustrations could act as a row of book spines, and clicking on them would open up into full-bleed book-cover-style illustrations with light animations. I explored this idea in many sketches. Here are some of the readable ones:

I also thought it might be cool to have quotes pop up depending on where you clicked the illustration. Kind of like the blurbs on the back of books, only more interactive. This was a bit confusing during test runs though, and our brilliant UX designer, Noah Levin, came up with the continuous parallax scroll concept as an alternative.


Below is one of the first sketches I drew for my initial pitch. You can see that I was shooting for more of a book cover format originally. 

The final did not change too much, even after I read the whole book to find possibly better scenes and quotes.


On top of reading all of these books (the Penguin audiobooks are amazing, btw), part of my research included revisiting my hometown area of Monterey and Salinas. A few friends and colleagues came along (including the engineering mastermind behind the doodle, Kris Hom). Fun fact: the four of us from the trip are represented as frogs in the Cannery Row illustration:


I really enjoyed the parallels between Doc's study of marine biology and how Steinbeck observes the characters within Cannery Row. The bums, prostitutes, store clerk, Doc, etc, all relied on each other in some strange unspoken way; its own ecosystem. Placing one of the iconic cannery bridges in the reflection of a pothole pond was a subtle way of illustrating this parallel.


I have a newfound appreciation for this book, having only read it before in high school. What struck me most this time around was the struggle between reality and longing.

The first illustration poses a question on that premise: Are the two men walking toward the physical farm to start a real job, or is this a walk through their imaginary "fat of the land"?

You may also spot some influence from Ben Shahn, specifically his work, Beautitudes. He has a tonal sensibility (both artistic and social) that goes hand in hand with Steinbeck's words, and hopefully some of it trickled its way into these illustrations. He has definitely played a big part in my growth as an artist recently and this seemed like the right time to thank him for it.

The quote above is taken slightly out of context from the moment it occurs in the story and this, to me, was a small victory – when illustration is more than just drawing the text. You're providing another viewpoint to the story without changing it, but creating more intrigue instead. One of the things I wish I did a better job on was identifying more of these unexpected moments throughout the series.


I chose The Pearl because it is my dad's favorite (he's the one that got me into Steinbeck years ago). In the above sketch, I drew the shape of The Pearl enclosed by the village, as Kino's discovery of the Pearl brings the entire town upon him and his family. The sea image became the final concept for the cover, but the village scene comes back to haunt us.


This book was eventually cut out, but I intended it to be another homage to one of Steinbeck's biggest inspirations and closest friend, Ed Ricketts. You can see how elements of the sketch ended up in the Pearl, and thankfully, there was a chance to draw Ed in the form of Doc in Cannery Row


Coming back to Charley, I guess one question people might ask is why not end GooglE with the obvious East of Eden? That's totally valid (and has been asked), but I wanted to end this doodle on a somewhat lighthearted note. It's also an autobiographical book, and serves nicely as an About the Author section at the end of this doodle. Still, I think the message in Travels of observing ourselves and our country is an important one. Things do get a little heavy toward the end of the trip, and even in escapism we are forced to confront those things. 

...but not always

John Steinbeck did write that his great mission was "to help people understand each other." And it's amazing how often, despite being published fifty to seventy-five years ago, he amazes me with advice that we as individuals and as a society could benefit from today.

Thanks for the journey, Mr. Steinbeck.


America in Search of John Steinbeck

I've wanted to create a tribute to my favorite writer, John Steinbeck, for some time now. I finally got the chance this year in the form of a "doodle" and hope you'll visit the Google homepage for a look: www.google.com 

Look for the follow-up Making Of post tomorrow, with plenty of behind the scenes sketches. It was a journey in itself.



Dian Fossey

One of the most amazing humans ever to have lived: Dian Fossey. I was incredibly honored to create a Google Doodle for her today.

Here's a fun fact though: I used to think her name was spelled Diane Fossy. It was an honest mistake, misplacing one little "e". Similarly, many of our doodles start out with us knowing very little about the subject matter. And it's understandable to a degree, considering we create doodles for figures all around the world. But I knew Dian was someone for whom I really needed to do my homework, so after correcting my spelling error and reading through her Wikipedia page, I ordered a copy of Gorillas in the Mist and dug in.

The Bigger Story

I thought I was in for a dry, scientific journal, full of charts, data, and the inevitable bits of Latin. There's some of all of those things to be sure, but it is perfectly woven into an engaging story, with the same range of emotional ups and downs of a novel. I laughed. I cried. I became angry. I was filled with hope. I cried some more. I was almost immediately drawn not just to the basis of her field work, but her greater cause to save the critically endangered mountain gorilla. 

I also engaged The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International for their guidance. It never hurts to get the real experts involved. Dr. Erika Archibald provided some invaluable bits of advice, and by the end of our phone call, I had a pretty firm grasp on what to illustrate. The challenge was focusing on the importance of her work while managing to weave a narrative thread throughout the piece.


Breaking down the Google Letters

The big 'g' is based on the first time Fossey was flown over the Virunga mountains. At the time, there were only something like 200 mountain gorillas, all living in one mountain range, so this image juxtaposes the idea of a wide-open space with what is actually a very limited area for an entire species.

The double 'o's show the family structure of the gorillas, which was something Fossey really focused on: The family dynamic, how the group interacted with each other ... I really wanted to build that sense of family, so here you see juvenile gorillas, mature females, one with infant, and a silverback male." 

The lowercase 'g' is based on the first time she actually saw a mountain gorilla face-to-face – she could barely see it peering through the foliage. Although the moment wasn't an encounter with Digit, the gorilla that Fossey's most famously known for being attached to – I chose to make the gorilla resemble him, a nod to one of her dearest friends.

The 'l' is the moment where a gorilla reached out and touched her hair. It may not have been the first or only moment of contact – she writes in the book about how one actually snatched her field notes away at one point – after a particularly good day of note-taking no less, plus the gorilla decided to eat a few pages – but it's an iconic moment captured on film and demonstrates her effectiveness in "habituating" with mountain gorillas. That is, being accepted into their group and to be able to roam among them.

I wanted to leave the 'e' a little more spacious and open-ended, because first of all, there's already a lot going on in the illustration, but also because there's a lot of ambiguity left in the tale of the mountain gorilla. Their future at best continues to be uncertain. So you can look at it from a place of hope or worry. If 'e' were to stand for something, it could stand for 'endangered,' or it could stand for 'enduring.' It's up to us to place the right 'E' in the right place.