Interview: Google Designer Ryan Germick

Today marks the debut of a new feature here at the Magnet Cat blog: a monthly interview with a creative professional. This month's subject is my great friend Ryan Germick. Ryan is a designer at Google as well as a cartoonist, web designer, Indiana native, and Prince enthusiast. Ryan and I attended the BA/BFA program at the New School together; we graduated in 2003 with BFA's in Illustration from Parsons School of Design and BA's in Writing from Eugene Lang College.

Ryan's got a dedicated work ethic and his creativity seems limitless. He comes from a family of numerous talented Germicks; you can check out their multimedia art empire Germart here (listen to Dylan and Nathan's new record Planet Booty and Nathan's mesmerizing Year of the Dragon). Also check out ryangermick.com and Ryan's comic, Gomance: My First Kiss. Last week, Ryan and I shared a cross-continent conversation about his storied Google career, the future of the internet, design inspiration, and T-Pain. Enjoy!

Dan Redding: What is your job title and place of employment?
Ryan Germick: I’m a Web Designer at Google. But really, I don’t do any web design; actually now I’m more of an illustrator.
There was a book published recently called What Would Google Do? Let’s settle this once and for all: what would Google do?
(Laughter) Google would organize the world’s information and make it universally useful and accessible. That’s the mission statement – like, verbatim. Sorry. I’ve drunken the Kool-Aid. (Laughter) And they wouldn’t do it in an evil way!
That’s the Google motto I’ve heard quoted, right? ‘Don’t be evil’?
Yeah, I think they’re pretty legit about it… I think at the top of the company there is good in the hearts of the ones running it.
Is Google CEO Eric Schmidt a nice guy?
I think so! He said my video (see below) was the funniest thing on the planet. So we’re totally cool. It was really flattering.

Ryan stars in Google's first video for the Google Maps 'Street View' feature.
View more Google videos that Ryan wrote and/or starred in here, here, and here.

And yet Google is so ubiquitous, you guys seem to come under fire a lot… It was recently alleged that performing two Google searches can create the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle and that the global IT industry generates as much greenhouse gas as the world's airlines.
I noticed that the official Google blog did have a post that sort of tried to explain their power consumption… I know that Google does have a lot of care for their carbon emissions, and like even being around the company, we just got rid of plastic water bottles, you know, to try to be eco-friendly. We’re getting composting. You know, for a company with like eight thousand people – eight thousand people just in the headquarters, in Mountain View - that should hopefully make a difference… The data servers consume a lot of energy. I read that Google is working on a patent for a data server that would float in the middle of the ocean. It’d be cooled by the water, and would sort of rise and fall with the tide. The hydrodynamic power from the rising and falling of the tides would power it… More to the point of people complaining about Google, when anyone’s big, people complain about ‘em, you know? I mean, you could complain about T-Pain, but the truth is, T-Pain is money. (Read/watch more about Google’s green initiatives.)
Oh, and I will complain about T-Pain. I was on record today complaining about T-Pain and his ridiculous hats.
That’s why they call people like you a hater.
Google has a search robot named Googlebot. Have you ever met him?
(Laughter) I’m not at liberty to discuss. But I will say, it was consensual.
You have drawn some of the Google holiday illustrations that can be seen on the homepage periodically. What does it feel like to have your drawing viewed by more people than one can fathom in every nook and cranny on the Earth?
I don’t think about it that way. I guess I don’t take the drawings very personally, so, I try to have fun with them… but generally I just kind of keep quiet about it and it’s just sort of part of my job. I’m really grateful that I get paid to draw.

Ryan's illustration of new year animals was
visible on the Google homepage on January 1st, 2009.

I’m looking at your Happy New Year animals. They’re very cute and cuddly. The economy's in the gutter; what the hell are they so happy about?
You wanna hear an exclusive dish? I was totally ripping off one of my favorite illustrators, Mary Blair, who was a Disney story artist and a really talented illustrator. She did all this great concept art for Disney, for classic movies like Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella. I thought people would call me out as some kind of total thief, but then nobody said anything. Nobody got the reference. Maybe I either failed, or no one knows anything about illustration anymore. But (the animals are) probably happy because I had a lot of fun doing it. Also, one of the characters – the purple monkey character – is actually not a monkey. It’s a motter. It’s half monkey, half otter. Her name is Oysterbar. A character that’s near and dear to my heart. I was happy I got to put in a character that’s been around in my world for awhile.
I guess in a lot of cases, you think that your inspiration is actually plagiarism, but usually you’re wrong, or no one else cares, or notices, or you have made it your own enough that it is your own.
Yeah! I’m shocked and I wish I would’ve done it sooner... You know our good friend and talented illustrator, Miki Amano. I would watch her draw, and she was also a big fan of Mary Blair, and I would see the way that she would use (Blair’s work) as a really creative and constructive influence, and it kind of opened me up to understanding that that’s okay, and it’s actually really healthy and good. So, it’s funny; it’s something that I thought was not good, and then it’s good.
What do you think the future holds for Google’s open source mobile platform, Android?
I will tell you that I’m talking on an Android phone right now and it’s pretty sweet. I’m a believer. It’s pretty darned open source, and I’m a believer in open source.
That’s kind of a crazy concept that web applications and development can be that democratic that anyone can have their input.
I think it’s great! And I think there’s no problem with it coexisting with iPhone. I think iPhone’s great, and I think that it’s cool that there’s other things out there. To bring it back to Google, as far as Google is concerned, they just want people using the internet. People are using the internet on iPhone, people are using the internet on Blackberry, that’s cool, because Google is in the business of selling ads, right? If people are using the internet, they’re probably using Google… so they’re happy.
I wonder if the future holds the potential for geniuses whose genius is code. When you think of geniuses and masterminds of the past, you think of artists and inventors. Now in the technology industry, there are brilliant entrepreneurs, of course, but I wonder if there will be someone who comes along and revolutionizes the whole design of the internet.
There is, man! There’s millions of them, and a bunch of them work for Google. The guy who invented the language Python, he’s a code genius, and he works for Google now. There’s amazing people there. They’re out there, it’s just a little less glamorous, because they don’t shoot themselves in the stomach… they play World of Warcraft till the wee hours. There are definitely code geniuses out there. You should look up the Computer History Museum.
Yeah, you’re right, that sounds really boring. (Laughter)

"My proudest accomplishment at Google is designing the animated poop emoticon."

From Android to Google’s browser Chrome, there always seems to be something new in the works at Google. What do you think is the most exciting venture in the works right now?
Well, I can’t talk about anything that hasn’t been released, but I think Android is really exciting and I think Chrome is really exciting. I was just talking to somebody about this on the Google Bus. I think Google Reader is the most underrated Google product. I think Google Reader is really cool. Google Reader lets you collect all the blogs and news sources that you read in one unified place, and then it lets you share what you like to read with your friends, and it’s very well designed and very simple and very effective. I think Gmail is a great product.
I totally agree.
Yeah, and they have Gmail Labs now, so there’s all these cool new features coming out. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but – can you put in a pull quote that my proudest accomplishment at Google is designing the animated poop emoticon? There’s a poop emoticon in Gmail, and that’s my proudest accomplishment.
I’m gonna see to it that that’s what it reads on your tombstone.
They’re gonna animate my tombstone anyway. (Laughter)
When do the machines plan to rise up and wage war on us humans?
It’s a goal for mid-2009. If Obama doesn’t give us reason to not start the coup, then it’s on.
Why do you say ‘us’? You’re on my side!
Oh, right, humans. Go humans.

Robot drawing by Ryan.
Read the comic here.

Are you on Twitter?
What is your favorite website to visit for fun?
I really like the Sorry I Missed Your Party blog.
What site do you visit for news?
I go to the New York Times, to the Huffington Post, I read tons of blogs through Google Reader. I probably keep up with like fifty blogs. I’ll give a shout out to my friend Ryan, who runs the Electric Ant Zine blog.
What do you think is the future of web design?
I think the future is going to be information-dense, lightweight, a lot of information through things like RSS, getting things on the go…
Things are getting too small: a favicon, and an emoticon, and a 140-character Tweet…
Basically the future of web design is gonna be on a little tiny screen. That’s okay… In regards to Twitter, I don’t get it, exactly, but I know people are into it. I’m visual, so I like Flickr, I like having photos and comics and stuff that people do. But it’s really cool that a site like Flickr has everything universally formatted, and I can have RSS feeds for it. It’s not the prettiest presentation, but it’s so efficient that you’re basically mainlining information. And that’s where it’s at and that’s where it’ll stay… I think the internet’s built for, you know, the information superhighway. I coined that phrase. Tons of information all the time. And if you can set it up in an efficient, lightweight way, then you can really get your fix.

Ryan talking.

What is the most important thing you learned in design school?
Time management skills and life balance are really good things to have.
There are a few quotes from Parsons professors that still ring through my head quite often. Like when Viktor Koen told me, “you say you love type, now it’s time to make love to type.” Do you have any quotes that you are often reminded of?
Yeah, there was this professor Richard Waxburg, he was awesome. He said three things that I remember very distinctly. He was the first person to use the word gestalt that I knew of. He talked a lot about the overall feeling of something. It’s like another way of saying, ‘does it work or not?’ But gestalt is so much more German and nice. I like saying that. He also said that you have to take things on their own terms. That concept is the basis of a really constructive critique. You start to say, ‘what is the artist trying to do?’ And you really empathize with the artist. That to me is the basis of constructive criticism and I can thank Richard for that. (And the third thing I learned from him) was that you gotta be ruthless. Ruthless in the sense that if you’re drawing a figure, and you really get into the details of the knuckles, and you feel really, really good about the knuckles, but if you aimed to draw the figure, and it turns out that you screwed up the arm, you just have to be willing to suck it up – to meet your goal, you gotta erase the knuckles, you know? You gotta just wipe it out. You gotta be willing to be really hard on yourself, and not be precious, and do what needs to be done to make it happen. He was really into that. He’d get on his knees and yell.
I remember how crazed his paintings could be. He was a walking gestalt.
He was a walking gestalt. And what else could you hope to be?
Any artists that you’ve been deriving creative inspiration from lately?
I forever love Osamu Tezuka. Another artist who I love dearly who recently passed away is Fujio Akatsuka. And then also, two of my friends whose work I really love and are a continual inspiration to me are Bay-area cartoonist Hellen Jo and Calvin Wong. I’m constantly surrounded by inspiration.
What’s the last great graphic novel you read?
I just read Watchmen. I thought it was good. I really appreciate how many levels things were working on. There’s lots of dense layering of symbolism…

Ryan at the Alternative Press Expo (read more)

When and why did you decide to become a vegetarian?
Well I’m not, I eat fish still, so I guess I’m a pescatarian. I decided in a Dairy Queen in the summer of 1993, before ninth grade. I ate a burger and I was like, ‘This is disgusting, I feel terrible… I don’t wanna eat this anymore.’
What was the most profound change that came from your experience living in India?
There were several things… I saw people who were poor but pretty content. The pace of life was - if you showed up somewhere, people stopped what they were doing and just chilled out with you. Here I am thinking that Americans have it all figured out… But really, these people are the ones that really have time, because they don’t have the 'resources' to ruin it. (Ryan’s India photo site from way back in 2000: ryanayana.com/)
You’ve been an outspoken Prince fan for many years. We know what Google would do, but more importantly, what would Prince do?
(Long sigh) Um, I’ll tell you what I would like Prince to do. ‘Cuz I don’t know what Prince would do. I wish Prince would go back to basics. I have this fantasy of having, like, a Court TV show where my favorite artists who have disappointed me would be put on trial. I thought of this idea with my friend Peggy. It would be a court show where my favorite artists get put on trial, and I would sentence them to a project that they’d have to complete to get out of a prison. And I wanna put Prince in prison to make him come out with a four-track jail album, where he can’t use a lot of cheesy synthesizers… he’d have to use really simple materials to make a straightforward good song. He can’t just rely on his old studio tricks.
Would it be a purple prison?
That’d be fine. That’d be great.

Thanks to Ryan Germick. Next month: an interview with public relations and music biz whiz Kristina Weise.


Kristina said...

Great/hilarious/amusing article, Dannyboy.

Truly -- well done, sir!

Jered said...

I've always been fascinated by Ryan's unique and captivating wordplay... what a fantastic interview! You've got some questioning skills as well-- I'm excited for this to become a monthly feature! Best caption: Ryan talking.

Dan Redding said...

Thanks for reading, guys! I'm excited about this new feature, too. If you have any potential interview subjects for the future, I'd love to hear them...

Yeah Jer, I think that photo caption is a highlight, too. I also think the poop pull quote is pretty funny.