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From logo to legacy.
An interview with Ruth Kedar, the designer who helped evolve the Google logo into one recognizable around the world.

Google logo design exploration courtesy of Ruth Kedar, kedardesigns.com

You just never know when a little opportunity is going to turn into a life-changing moment. 

Ruth Kedar was an established designer and Stanford instructor when two Stanford students asked if she’d be willing to design a logo for their burgeoning startup. She took their request seriously, and the result was an iconic logo that outlived design trends – and expectations.

In celebration of Google’s 25th birthday, we asked Ruth to share an in-depth, personal account of how her world-renowned logo came to be.

The vision

As with all my work, the design process started with extensive and deep conversations with the clients, in this case Larry Page and Sergey Brin, to get a better sense for who they were, to learn more about the company they were building, who they were building it for, and what was their intent, and their vision.

Even at that very early stage, it was clear that their vision was long term. Their intent was to create a company like no other, with no desire to follow preconceived notions on how things were supposed to be done. They didn’t wish to follow the footsteps of any company out there. And even though they were a startup, they wanted to stand out and make their mark – literally and figuratively across the existing landscape.

Typography

In 1998 the computer had yet to find its typographical voice. Throughout history new writing tools inspired new type designs – the chisels the Roman used on marble inspired the serif (wedge-shaped) fonts. The introduction of quill pens as a writing tool gave birth to cursive scripts. And a love for clean designs in the 1930s gave birth to sans serif fonts.

But in 1998, when personal computers were just becoming the new writing tool, computer type was still in its infancy. Even when facing issues such as pixelation and lack of legibility, it seemed like there was no clear evolution of typography to fit the new medium. 

Early in the process we decided that we would create a logotype for Google, which meant that the logo would only use the letters in the Google name. That made choosing a font that would rise above those obstacles and reflect all the values and ideas behind the Google brand, as well as their product search even more important.

One of the things that came to me is that search is this point where past and future meet. When you search for something, you are looking for past knowledge so that you can find an idea today for something that you’re going to do in the future. The concept of continuity, with search at the very center of it. 

That is why I searched for a typeface that on one hand evoked the traditions of the past while also being forward looking. 

When I came upon the font Catull, I loved the nod to traditional typefaces, but at the same time how the lightness, elegance, precision of its lines, and its proportions deviated from traditional serif fonts. It is true that we looked at other fonts but what cinched it for us was the visual impact of the Catull letterforms when spelling out the word “Google” – the result was unlike anything out there.

At that time, we didn’t know that the Google Doodles would become synonymous with Google, and how important they would be in solidifying the brand. But the uniqueness of these letterforms allowed artists to create amazing illustrations where the Google logo always remained recognizable as their underlying structure.

Colors

Google started as a service provided primarily for university students since they were the audience most comfortable with the internet. Everybody else was still using encyclopedias and printed reference materials. Most people were still wary of using the internet, with many afraid to push a button fearing their computer might explode. I say this in jest, but it is not far from the truth.

This whole idea of being afraid of interacting with the new technology was the kernel for introducing the idea of child’s play. Not play as in being childish or not sophisticated but play as a joyful thing. When you play you have curiosity, you take risks, and you have fun in the process. Case in point: adding the “Are you feeling lucky?” button on the home page. 

From there, staying with the use of primary colors – red, blue, and yellow – was an obvious choice, as it is often used in early childhood development toys, such as building blocks which are particularly analogous to search (as an intrinsic building block to learning).

Primary colors, the basis from which infinite colors are created, is also analogous to search. By typing a few words you hope to have access to all the answers, so you won’t miss the perfect answer for you.

Search also implies a desire for deeper understanding. Answers may generate further questions, which will require further prodding. Hence the introduction of orange, a secondary color in the color wheel.

Once we chose the colors, the next question was: “In which order?” In color theory, progressions in hue, value, and saturation have a precise place on the color wheel. The choice to mix them up in a surprising and unexpected way reflected the fact that Google did not follow established rules and had a new way of looking at all things.

What was happening in the world and pop culture at the time that influenced your design choices?

The world then was in political and economic turmoil, such as Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial and the Asia financial crisis, as well as witnessing historical moments such as the signing of the peace accord in Northern Ireland.

In 1998, Disney released “Mulan,” Steven Spielberg released “Saving Private Ryan,” the first “Harry Potter” book was published [in the US]. And Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” topped the charts and became a global hit.

Yes, it was a year full of chaos and uncertainty, but the proliferation of innovation and creativity had us all looking towards a future full of possibilities. 

With that said, I believed then and now that creating a solution that is only of the moment can be very limiting, especially in the case of logo design. It’s the difference between being a one-hit wonder and having a successful decades-long career in music. 

So instead of being influenced only by what is happening at this moment in time, I prefer to draw from the culture as a whole, from its history, art, music, literature, language, etc. in order to hopefully arrive at a solution that is timeless and will continue to serve the brand as it grows and evolves.

I would say not much until Google’s tenth anniversary. That was the first time attention was drawn to Google’s logo design and my association with it. Suddenly I was inundated with requests to grant interviews to national and international publications.

When I designed the Google logo, Google had a handful of employees, and “Search” was its only product. Had it stayed small, you may never have heard my name. But by becoming a global company with hundreds of products and hundreds of thousands of employees, and such a ubiquitous brand, Google brought the world’s attention to me and with it a notoriety that took me completely by surprise.

If you could do it again, would you change anything about the process in creating this logo? What advice would you give your younger self?

I wouldn’t change the process. Nor would I change the outcome. And this is not only the case with the Google logo. Design is not just about aesthetics. In its core, design is a utilitarian discipline, which means that its purpose is to solve a particular set of problems, whether large or small. The design of a logo is the result of a process that identifies the issues that need solving, understands their place in both the micro and the macro cosmos they occupy, their interdependency and ramifications. In short, you need to know a lot about these issues before you can begin to work on a solution. It is true that you can look at an older logo and see things that can be improved. But that is not enough. A thorough exploration and understanding is needed before you can redesign something and really add value to what is there now.

In hindsight there were a few things I did instinctively that served me well: 

  • Curiosity – There is always much to learn when presented with a new project, whether you are already familiar with the subject matter or not. Each project is a unique amalgamation of a myriad of factors, such as its time and place, its landscape, its own and the surrounding culture, the challenges it presents and faces, the personalities involved, the people it serves, etc.

  • Getting to know the people and functions involved in executing the final ideas to better understand the issues that are important to them. That may seem counterproductive when you have deadlines to meet, but this approach not only saves time in the end, it also informs the process, and as a bonus gives all involved a sense of ownership that is invaluable when trying to output high-quality products.

On the other hand, there were things I learned along the way: 

  • Be patient - Trust the process, even at its most frustrating. Be open to serendipity, and the unexpected. It will often lead you to new experiences and invaluable insights that will serve you well.

  • Be humble. It is difficult to let go of the ego. Yes, you bring a lot of value to the table, but remember that you are not the final arbiter. You are a facilitator, an interpreter hopefully with the means to deliver a wonderful solution. To that effect, throughout the process, there should be a look back at what has been done so far - how well does this direction, this development, this solution address all the known problems you were hired to solve? Be ready to change course, or even pivot completely if responses to these questions are not satisfactory. And after the project is done, take the time to see whether it met yours and the client’s expectations. How did it fare in the real world, outside the walls of your office? Are there lessons to be learned? Are there things that could or should have been done differently?

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What does this 25th year milestone mean to you on a personal level? Do you have any reflections or thoughts about the future you would like to share?

Besides feeling old, I’m humbled and honored to be part of Google’s history.

It is extremely rare that a brand you’ve been involved with remains a ubiquitous presence in your everyday life, let alone for so long. There’s not a day I don’t use a handful of Google products either in my professional or personal life. 

I’m proud of Google’s success, and I’ve been very fortunate to witness over the last 25 years how Larry and Sergey’s ideas, ideals, visions, and goals of so long ago not only became a reality, but far superseded their wildest dreams.

I can’t wait to see what lies ahead. 

Today’s world is faced with many challenges associated with the internet: privacy and security, fake news and disinformation, digital divide, cyberbullying, ethical use of technology and AI, etc. In the last few years Google has been actively helping devise and implement many initiatives and policies to address these issues, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it will continue to evolve and deepen its commitment and efforts to make the internet and the world a better place.

Takeaways
Learn how Ruth Kedar helped develop the iconic Google logoRead her detailed account of how she chose the signature colors and developed a unique typographyGet Ruth’s valuable insights into what made her successful and how other designers can learn from her experience
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