Doodling with Sensei

As you may have seen, the Google Doodle for March 14, 2012 is made of origami and celebrates the 101st birthday of Akira Yoshizawa, the father of the modern origami art. Origami has a multi-century history as a folk art in Japan, and Yoshizawa was not the only, or even the first, of his countrymen to take up the creation of new origami figures in the 20th century. But his work, more than anyone else’s, influenced the worldwide practice and set it on the path from craft to art (indeed, established origami as an art). He created thousands of new designs, developed new folding techniques, invented wet-folding, and designed the notational system that is still used today to convey origami instruction. So, all in all, he is a most worthy subject to be honored by a Google Doodle!

And why do I write about it here? Well, Google asked me to help put this together, which I was most happy to do, and they also asked me to write up a little bit about Yoshizawa and what I did for their Doodle blog. You can find that here, along with a permanent record of the Doodle.

Of course, if you are reading this at the right time, you can see the Doodle on the main Google page, “in the wild,” so to speak. (If you are reading this at all, it means that people following links to my website haven’t crushed the web server. If you aren’t able to read this, sorry, it means that they have, and the NetSol host is curled up in the corner, whimpering.)

The Google Doodle of the Day is nominally up for 24 hours, but by strategically visiting different Google servers, you can find it over a period of about a day and a half. It comes first to the easternmost national domain, which happens to be the island of Tonga, then works its way around the world. My own time zone (California, in Pacific Time Zone) is one of the later ones; my Hawaiian friends get the last shot at it.

Here’s how it all came about. A few weeks before the date, I was approached by Google. They already had the notion (they get suggestions from all over, I was told) and they already had a concept: they wanted to fold the Google logo with origami, and then decorate it with some of Yoshizawa’s figures. I suggested his iconic butterfly, to which they readily assented.

They asked me to develop a couple of concepts for different ways of rendering the logo. (That would have to be an original designs, of course.) I thought of three different ways of rendering the letters, folded the letter “G” for two of them (you can see them in the article linked above), but I really, really liked he second version after I’d folded it, so even before folding the third, I sent them the first two, hoping that they’d love the one I liked as much as I did and so I wouldn’t need to fold the last. And fortunately, they did.

At that point, two major efforts swung into action. One was mine: designing and folding the remaining logo letters. That was actually pretty easy. Although the crease patterns look superficially complex, the style of folding has been around for decades (it is the basis of the famous “Troublewit” magic routine), and there is a very straightforward technique for transforming any outline into the crease pattern.

The real heavy lifting came in the second effort: getting permission. Of course, no permission was needed, other than Google’s, to design and fold their logo. But if we were going to show Yoshizawa’s butterflies, we needed to get permission from his estate, which meant from his wife, Kiyo Yoshizawa, who manages his affairs and his organization, the International Origami Center. Mrs. Yoshizawa does not speak English and does not use email: our work was cut out for us.

For that effort, I enlisted two people from OrigamiUSA, the American national origami association: Jan Polish and Marcio Noguchi, both of whom have been deeply involved in international origami relations. Marcio, in turn, contacted Makoto Yamaguchi, owner of Gallery Origami House in Tokyo and one of the leading figures in Japanese origami today. Yamaguchi-san made contact with Mrs. Yoshizawa and secured the necessary permission, for usage of his butterfly, for use of Yoshizawa’s image in the photos in the article for the Google Doodle blog, and, most importantly, her blessing for the entire project.

Meanwhile, I designed and folded. Google wanted the letters folded in their traditional colors (or as close as we could get). I chose Canson Mi-Teintes watercolor paper, which comes in a wide range of colors so I could approximate the Google colors reasonably well. It also comes in fairly large sheets, so I could fold the letters in relatively large size (which allows a crisp appearance) and, because it is fairly stiff, it provides good contrast between the sharp creases and flat facets.

The pleated “Troublewit”-style letters allow for a deterministically computational design; in fact, the creases could be constructed using a method akin to compass-and-straightedge mathematical constructions. So the creation of the crease patterns was very fast, but that led to a problem: how to efficiently get the creases in the right place on the paper that was actually going to be folded?

Beginning a few years ago, I started to explore using an industrial laser cutter to score paper for origami crease patterns: initially using borrowed equipment at Squid Labs, courtesy of Saul Griffith, and then eventually obtaining my own system. By the time of the Google project, I had developed an efficient workflow that could take any crease pattern, process it with some custom software I’d written for Wolfram Mathematica, and turn that into a scored pattern on any sheet of paper.

So, I sic’d my scoring software onto the patterns for the Google letters, which transferred them crease patterns onto the Canson Mi-Teintes and cut out sheets of the appropriate sizes for the letters. An hour of so of folding the scored paper patterns resulted in the finished letters for the logo. And then that was followed by folding a range of butterflies from Origami Dokuhon I, Yoshizawa’s 1957 masterpiece.

The Thursday before D-day was set for photography. Two folks from Google showed up and spent a few hours arranging letters and butterflies for the shoot. I have a small photography setup in my studio that I use for shooting the images on the website. Via a process vaguely reminiscent of cooking nail soup, bits and pieces of my own setup gradually got incorporated into the Google shoot: seamless backdrop, halogen light, museum mount, wire, drafting tape, glue, and more. The Googlers had fairly definite desires on the colors and sizes of butterflies, so at their request, I’d bought a pack of 100 different colors of origami paper in preparation: they picked out colors, requested sizes, and then I cut the paper to size and folded butterflies to order.

One of the fun things about photo shoots is that the preparation can take hours as the subjects are arranged, tweaked, manipulated, re-tweaked, and test shot after test shot is made; but when everything is exactly right, the photographer takes one shot, says “that’s it!” and you’re done! And that was the case with this shoot. It was like climbing a mountain: you work your way up toward the top, getting closer and closer, and then boom: you’re there, nothing more to do.

A few shots from the photo shoot are below.

Precreased letters
The precreased letters.
Folding in progress
Folding in progress: collapsing the lower-case g.
First draft
My first draft, and some sample butterflies.

After folding the first round, I realized I was a little bit off in the x-height of the lower case letters, so I tweaked the crease patterns so that the letters would more closely match the logo letterforms.

Improved text
Improved letters, with better x-height.

After everything was folded, the Google Doodle team came over and we set up to shoot (in my typically junky studio).

The shooting setup
The shooting setup.

In order to line up the baselines when all of the letters were sitting on a flat surface, the lowercase “g” needed to be moved forward considerably. You can see here that it’s nearly cut off at the left. (It’s photos like this that explain why I’m not a professional photographer.)

Close-up of the letters with some butterflies.

But when you’re at just the right angle, everything lines up!

camera's eye view
The camera’s eye view gets the baselines of the letters aligned.

And finally, after much tweaking, attachment of butterflies, and bouncing of photons, here’s the final result.

Google's Yoshizawa Doodle
The Google Doodle for March 14, 2012.

Update: I’d written a longer article about the “making-of” for Google’s blog, which was edited down for their final. I’ve combined that article with this one to tell the whole story; you can find it here.