Meet the woman behind today’s Sally Ride Google doodle

May 26, 2015, 10:00 AM UTC
Courtesy of Google

Have you Googled today? If so, you’ve likely seen Olivia Huynh’s Google doodle celebrating the life of astronaut Sally Ride.

Doodles are the themed images, videos, animations, or games that Google uses in place of its familiar logo to celebrate holidays or momentous dates–in this case, Ride’s birthday. You probably know Ride as the first woman to go to space, but that’s just one of many achievements. She also helped design the robotic arm used on her space mission and founded Sally Ride Science, an education company dedicated to launching kids–especially girls and minorities–into careers in science and technology.

The Ride doodle, a series of five animated gifs (a different image is generated each time you go to the homepage), was created the 23-year-old Huynh. If Huynh’s work seems familiar, it’s probably because she also designed this year’s Mother’s Day doodle, among others. Her art has also been featured by MoMA, Animation Block Party, and the New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Sally Ride Google doodle


On Friday, Huynh was still in the midst of finalizing the Ride animation, but she took a break from her looming deadline to talk to Fortune about what it’s like to be a doodler, where her ideas come from, and her personal connection to Ride.

What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How did you end up at Google?

Google sort of found me–which was very unbelievable. Before that I was just freelancing and taking my films to festivals. They asked me, ‘Do you want to work on a doodle for Halloween?’ and I was like, “there’s nothing I’d rather do–in the world. That’s amazing.” After that, they had a full-time position for someone who could animate and I was hired by mid-November [of 2014].

Do you spend 100% of your time working on doodles?

Occasionally we do get side projects where someone from another team wants a more creative eye. But for the most part, it’s just doodles. I also collaborate with other people, which is probably the most fun for me. I helped animate Nelly Bly [a video doodle that includes an original song] and Valentine’s Day.

How often does Google do doodles?

The team has really grown since the first doodles, which has given us the power to do more. We’re doing about 400 a year now. A lot of those are in other countries—they wouldn’t make sense for the U.S. We’re always working on something.

How long does it take to complete a doodle?

The turnaround on this one was pretty quick for the amount of animation that we’re doing. From start to finish it’s been about a month. For a static illustration its maybe one or two weeks. A full video can take a month or two–then there are interactive things and games. When you’re thinking about a doodle, a concept, you can really go as big as you want to on it.

Where did the Sally Ride idea come from?

I think Sally Ride has been on everyone’s mind for a long time, just because she really resonates with some of the ideas Google has about technology and spreading STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] to children. That was really part of her life as a person.

A lot of my ideas came from research. Sally’s perspective always seems so optimistic about space. I think she said at one point that [going to space] was the most fun she’s ever had in her life and would probably be the most fun she’d ever have in her life. That aspect of fun really helped bring together a set of ideas. Once we started talking about it we realized it had to be kind of a big doodle–we realized it was either big or go home on this one.

The other aspect was talking to Tam O’Shaughnessy, who was Sally’s life partner. Tam is full of a million amazing stories. She was able to give us so much that you can’t read on the internet. She helped us get a sense of Sally’s personality.

Do you have any personal connection to, or memories of, Sally Ride?

I was really excited to get this doodle because I’m really attached to NASA. I grew up in Houston near Johnson Space Center. Growing up in that area I was around engineers and astronauts. She was role model for people there, even outside of the NASA community.

Then, when I was doing research for a film in school, I ended up reading about astronauts and learning more about her. The more I read, the more incredible she sounded. She was the first woman astronaut and the youngest astronaut and the first out LBGT astronaut. It was very inspiring to read that—you could imagine that it could have been way longer before we had a female astronaut. It was one of those things that stick with you.

Tell me a little more about the specific images you ended up using. What inspired them?

There are certain ones that were inspired by Tam. Like the one that looks like it’s in an auditorium. That’s based on a story Tam told me about how Sally was explaining the feeling of being weightless to an auditorium of kids. [Sally] said, ‘Close your eyes and imagine that you’re slowly floating to ceiling and you keep bumping into all your neighbors.’ I thought that was so funny and amazing.

Some of the other ones are more silly, like the one where she looks like she’s pushing around letters. That’s that aspect of fun in space. The other few were inspired by her accomplishments. She helped develop the robotic arm and operated it on her mission. The one that looks like mission control is based on a program she set up for middle schoolers that gives kids access to a camera that she set up on the international space center.

How did you create the doodle?

It’s 2-D animation. They’re hand drawn in Photoshop. It’s done frame by frame, and the animation is basically a lot of drawings get put together.

Do you know what your next doodle is?

I’m still trying awake long enough to get through this one!


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