The Schmooze

The Israeli Woman Behind the Google Doodle

Liat Ben Rafael relaxes at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters/Haaretz

Every day, hundreds of millions of people are exposed to the artistic preferences of a young Israeli woman who curates one of the most popular exhibitions on earth. Liat Ben Rafael, 28, is one of the three managers of the Google Doodle team, which is responsible for Google’s constantly changing home page. The team includes 10 illustrator-animators, graduates of art schools, and four programmers.

Four hundred doodles go live every year, replacing the usual logo (which was designed by Ruth Kedar, an Israeli designer) with an interactive or entertaining illustration. About 2,000 doodles have been created so far. Most of the team’s work involves marking independence days and the birthdays of important figures in each country. Those doodles are shown only to Internet surfers in the specific country.

Ben Rafael’s role is to construct the annual plan for the doodles. She works in Google’s offices in California, and is part of a team that examines the suggestions that come from all over the world, from Google employees and web surfers alike.

She makes the final decision as to which doodles to develop and give to the illustrators. She is currently heading the World Cup project, and is also responsible for the International Women’s Day project, in which she takes particular pride. She is also in charge of the children’s competition, Doodle 4 Google.

In an interview at Google’s offices in Tel Aviv, Ben Rafael says that it all started in 1998. “Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, went to the Burning Man Festival, as they do every year. This time, they decided to leave an ‘Out of office’ message in Google’s logo. They replaced the second O in the logo with a drawing of a man with outstretched arms, a symbol similar to that of Burning Man. At the next stage, they added clip-art such as a turkey for Thanksgiving or a pumpkin for Halloween. Since the surfers liked it, they put together a team that would deal with that only, since that was not something that a computer could do. The goal is for the surfer to say, ‘OK, Google is great and I’m going back every day, but it’s nice that there’s also somebody sitting there who wants to make me happy.’ Google doodles have become more interactive, animated and creative in recent years.”

Alongside the criticism of Google’s penetration into other areas of activity that influence our lives, the doodle was always the innocent and entertaining part of the site. But it, too, has aroused criticism: According to a study by the women’s organization SPARK, which analyzed 445 of the images that Google included in its doodles between 2010 and 2013, 357 were men, of whom 275 were white, and only 77 doodles were devoted to women. Google responded rapidly, attaining balance in 2014. During the first half of the year, women were given equal representation, and representation for men and women of color expanded significantly. Ben Rafael says that women received more representation in this year’s doodles than ever before.

Why commemorate the birthdays of deceased people instead of celebrating people who are alive?

We prefer to commemorate people who are no longer living. Imagine that we did a doodle for Oscar Pistorius because he is an amazing paralympic runner, and then he went and murdered his girlfriend. That is one of the considerations. We don’t do celebrities either. That’s not our thing. If it were, there would be a doodle for Justin Bieber. One of the principles is to avoid politics, so as to make as many people as possible smile on the same day. We dedicate a doodle to Martin Luther King every year. For us, he is more than a politician; he is somebody positive who changed the world for the better. The only criticism that we get from our users is that we did not mention certain people, and we see that as a compliment. We will get to every person who is worthy of being commemorated. But we can’t do it all at once. We’re a small team.”

Ben Rafael says that the doodle team is not ashamed of the fact that they’re lightweight, but reminds me that as part of the Olympic Games in Sochi, an Olympic doodle was run with the gay pride colors in the background and a quote from the Olympic Charter below: ‘The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.’

“That shows our position and speaks for itself, and that’s what’s good about it,” she says.

How important are the doodles to Google?

Very. Google knows how many surfers see the doodle, which shows the website’s human, positive and personal face. We feel we’re lucky to have what seems to be the world’s biggest canvas, and all we need to do with it is make people smile and teach them something new. We don’t work with market surveys. We have creative autonomy, and that’s what makes the magic. Every stage of approval and fixes would make our doodles lose their charm. For this purpose we set aside a team that does not move the company forward, is not commercial and does not bring in revenue.

So what does a day with the Google Doodle team look like? Tuesdays are devoted to team meetings, which the members start with games to release their creativity.

“In one game, each person draws the beginning of a drawing on a page and passes it to the next person, who completes it,” she says. “That’s good because doodles must always tell a story in a pretty simple manner.”

Afterward, the team splits into groups for a brainstorming session, thinking up doodles for the long term. Most of the members choose a simple field and throw out names by free association. In the second part of the day, the team members show the doodles they are working on, and the rest of the team offers feedback.

Ben Rafael, who studied psychology, got to Google when it was looking for student interns. At first she worked in the business marketing department, and then became the marketing director for Google Plus in Israel. She moved to California once she joined the branding team. Soon after she moved to the United States, she knew she wanted to work on the doodle team.

“In a smiling Israeli way, I said I was interested and that if there was an opportunity, I wanted to work there,” she says. “A week later, one of the team leaders moved to France and I replaced her, and nothing can make me leave.”

What’s your favorite doodle?

You could say I pushed Simone de Beauvoir. I admire her for her writings, which talk about the causes of the oppression of women throughout history. There was one doodle I thought was amazing, but it was seen only in the United States because it’s very American – a doodle of Ira Glass from the radio program ‘This American Life.’ Beyoncé contacted us recently, asking to collaborate. Her team said she was wild about our doodles.

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The Israeli Woman Behind the Google Doodle

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