Saturday, September 24, 2011

Home is Where the Logo Is

Like many who follow digital culture, I am interested in the design aesthetic of the so-called "Google doodles" that often grace the home page of the giant search engine's website. Many different occasions have been commemorated by the one-time Google doodles, from International Women's Day to the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. (My UCSD colleague Lev Manovich has created a visualization of their logo "stylespace" here.)

This weekend all around the world -- with the exception of China -- the Google doodle commemorates the 75th birthday of Muppet creator Jim Henson. The launch of the Henson doodle is also an event of considerable personal significance in our household, because the current Google doodle was created by my husband of twenty years, Mel Horan. Those who follow this blog might know that Mel created the innovative web series Garbage Island back in 2000, designed the "Free Culture" scout patch that was picked up on Boing Boing, and is known to occasionally blog his daily hand-drawn lunchbags for our son Felix's own brand at Brown Bag Dad. A video about the creation of the Doodle, which involved two months of intense work between the two corporations, shows some of the stakeholders involved in the process and includes an interview with Mel.

In recent years Google has attempted to move away from its famed white design aesthetic of extreme minimalism to doodles that encourage more interaction, more sharing, and more remixing of Google's brand identity on social media sites. Perhaps the Les Paul doodle, which was used to strum everything from Happy Birthday to Lady Gaga, was the most notable example of this online strategy. Of course, these efforts also showcase the engineering feats of Google programmers, since millions of users could easily overtask their servers with mouseovers and mouse clicks with a poorly designed interface. The Henson doodle, which uses digital puppetry with a 3-D CGI design, is putting HTML5 to the test today.

Those interested in more casual interactions with their screens might interact with the logo for mere minutes or seconds before entering their search terms. An article in PC magazine explains the principle, but the interface was meant to be intuitive to those who want to bring the characters to life.

This Google doodle was also designed to appeal to two distinct classes of more devoted computer users: those searching for cheat codes and those interested in making music video mashups.

Soon a "secrets revealed" video appeared on YouTube, which showed how to make the first animated "o" in Google lose his glasses, although a more satisfyingly humorous "secret" involves manipulating the mouse so that the final "e" devours the "l," as the video below shows. I won't reveal any more secrets here, however, and would suggest instead a visit to the comments of this page at BeatWeek to understand my reasoning for reticence.

As an article in TIME notes, "puppet karaoke" is another emergent phenomenon of today's doodle. Using either real-time puppeteering, as those involved in dance parties in Star Wars Galaxies do or more advanced digital editing machinima techniques, users can create short films in which the five characters play either speaking or singing roles. TIME points its readers to the example below that has the characters lip synching to the Black Eyed Peas.

Given the Henson's company's alliance with Disney, known for its policing of copyright in the Sad Kermit case, this acceptance of the existence of user-generated content created by what Henry Jenkins has called "participatory culture" may be worthy of note. Although the Henson doodle is already off the main page for Google France, one can still join the "list of mashups" being curated on the web.

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Friday, September 02, 2011

Performance Anxiety

In a recent class I taught about "the Art of the State," students were encouraged to think about the values matrix of government as it is represented in the visual rhetoric of the state. In the case of the Obama administration values like "transparency" may even get their own designated .gov websites. Now the White House has launched, which uses the language of corporate discourse and key phrases like "acquisition," "financial accountability," "human resources," and "customer service" along with stock photos of shaking hands, calculators, and generic clients to establish more associated with capital ventures than the social contract. I've been thinking about how "performance" differs from "efficiency" in its connotations and why the administration might choose a rhetoric of magnified returns rather than limited investment at this particular historical moment.

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