Interview: Ruth Kedar, Designer of the Google Logo
Ruth Kedar is the principal designer at Kedar Designs, a corporate design firm based in Mountain View, California. As well as work for Stanford University and the Alliance Francaise, she’s most famous for designing Google’s ubiquitous, disarmingly naive logo. Bad Idea spoke to her about the development of the Google logo, and about creating an effective corporate identity.
Bad Idea: Where do you start if you’re designing a corporate logo?
Ruth Kedar: The most important thing is to listen to the people who are behind the company. Then try to understand who they are, where they’re coming from, what they’re trying to achieve, and what kind of problem they’re trying to solve. And understand what the audience is.
You know in Alice Through the Looking Glass, she says ‘I need to see what I say to know what I think’? In many ways it’s my role to get them to talk to see what it is they’re saying, it gets them to articulate what the idea is.
Then take all of that and translate it into a visual representation, until you come up with something that people can really stand behind, that echoes their voice and makes it louder and brighter. If they are not thrilled with it, it doesn’t matter that I’ve created the most balanced, incredibly harmonious and beautiful imagery – the difference between art and design is that design is a utilitarian enterprise, solving a particular problem.
BI: From a layman’s perspective, it seems like the simplest logos are often the most effective. How do you create something that’s simple and yet transmits a complex message?
RK: The company and the people behind it, and the customer – they do not all need to see exactly the same thing in a logo, but if every single one of them is able to see that his perspective is being articulated in it, then that’s great. If you take this symbol, you’ve given birth to this thing, and very much like Moses, you put it on the stream and it takes it where it goes. So then you’re not controlling it any more, but if every single person who encounters it is able to see something in it that touches them deeply, and in a positive way, and it withstands the trials of time, the geographic, the generations, then it’s successful.
So you shouldn’t limit yourself to something so concrete and so recognisable, or tied into a fad or a particular time or connotation – in doing that you’re limiting the vision. If you look at the Apple logo, there are a lot of ideas that go beyond the fact that this is a fruit. There’s the connotation of the Garden of Eden, the interaction between nature and man, taking the first step, taking the bite of something much bigger.
You need to draw a visceral reaction from people, and these reactions are based on their whole experience as a human being in every kind of role they’ve ever had, as children, as friends, as parents, as lovers, as consumers, as travellers.
BI: So how did the Google logo come about?
RK: I met with people that had an amazing vision, that had an idea of where Google was going to be in ten years. With the product they were bringing forth, the interaction between the consumers and the product, how they viewed themselves as a company, and the culture within the company – they really did not want to be anything like we had seen before.
We were not going to be upper-case. And this was the time of Yahoo and Netscape – wacky fonts, which represented being anti-establishment, but because everyone was doing wacky fonts, it became the norm. I tried to find a font that was still serif, which was unusual at the time, but that wasn’t thick and bold, that had an elegance to it.
They were really into childhood, all the aspects of childhood we still feel ourselves no matter how old we get: curiosity, playfulness, optimism, adventurousness, impishness. I was thinking about Legos, and putting things together, and the colour palette, and rainbows. While we were talking and developing, we went around and around, and ended up with something that resembled some of the original things that Larry [Page, Google's co-founder] was playing with at the very beginning, but with more complexity drawn into it.
BI: The Google logo hasn’t changed for many years now – why do you think that is?
RK: It still looks very different from anything out there – with the typefaces and letterforms that were chosen, each is still unique, and allows for the doodles to be created. Again a big no-no – you shouldn’t touch the logo, and yet here is a platform that you can play with, and it’s so recognisable you can take huge chunks out of it and still see it. I think one of the great successes is the fact that when you say the word Google, you see the logo in front of you.
I’ve done other things which I think are stronger in terms of aesthetic and purity of design, but this is a good example of the company, the product and the visual identification working so well together that they have been able to grow and develop into completely different areas and still work. The flexibility and adaptability fits the Google culture. There’s something in the logo that transcends the original intent; it’s a vessel that expands, it’s a flower that blooms and grows.
There are some concerns around the fact they have so much power and they’re branching into so many different areas. It’s interesting that the fact that they still carry on with a very playful and childlike logo – in some ways it makes it easier to interact with the huge conglomerate they have become. It makes them non-sinister and non-threatening.
BI: How has the internet changed the landscape of logo design?
RK: The way that corporations have presented themselves to the public has changed quite a bit. Everyone has information at their fingertips, and consumers have a lot to say. We’re definitely a more consumer-driven society. So companies can no longer afford to be behind these big walls, in castles with big moats around them. It’s not just a matter of what representation you put forward for your board of directors or your shareholders, but really what kind of image do you want to convey to your consumer. That should bring a lot of humility: you need to understand it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve raised or how much prestige you have, but how can you really get your customers to trust your product.
This is also the age in which you the individual can have a huge reach from your home, in your pajamas in your loft apartment, you can reach anybody anywhere. How do you make your presence felt, convey who you are and what you’re bringing forth?
Ultimately, you always have to remember that a logotype really gets tied in with the product. If the product is not good, a good logo is not going to save it.