The Imperfections in Google’s Logo Are What Make It Perfect

Or, why the G isn't a perfect circle

The "Google G" logo (at left) isn't a perfect circle. If it were (at right), it would look like it had an overbite.
Headshot of Tim Nudd

Designers already know all this, but a recent question posed on Reddit about the dimensions of Google’s “G” logo—and why it’s not a perfect circle—led to a crash course in a few fundamentals of graphic design.

It started when Reddit user maxt0r posted images of what Google calls its “Google G” to the r/mildlyinfuriating subreddit. The images showed, among other things, that the G isn’t a perfect circle—and seemed to imply this was a mistake on Google’s part.

A user named A_freakin_t-rex then reposted the images to r/graphic_design, where designers scoffed at the idea that Google had messed this up. (Google takes its design work seriously, as we saw in 2014 when it tweaked its old logo by moving the “g” right one pixel and the “l” down and right one pixel—an absurdly minuscule change that demonstrated Google’s perfectionism, and which, coincidentally, was also brought up by Reddit users at the time.)

In hashing out the “Google G” issue, designers on Reddit emphasized a basic truth of design, which is that visuals that are mathematically correct are not always optically correct. The image below, posted by user theloneplant on another r/graphic_design thread, shows the actual “Google G” on the left (which employs some so-called “optical balancing”) and a “Google G” that’s a perfect circle on the right. It’s clear which one looks better.

Reddit user alexandercecil nicely captured the reasoning here:

Our eyes and brains are imperfect things. They are very good at what they are supposed to do, but identifying perfect geometry is not one of those things. Instead, our brains pick out rough shapes in our field of vision and quickly identify them. That is why you can get freaked out and mistake a hoodie draped over the back of a dining room chair as a real person for a moment.

Taking a perfect circle and changing it, like cutting out a section and adding a line to make it resemble a letter, can make that perfect shape look like it is not a perfect shape. In this case, it makes the perfect circle look elongated. If you stare at it and concentrate, you can see the difference, but reading and logos are not about staring and concentrating. Both rely on that quick shape recognition, so you want to use a shape that looks round at first glance, not one that actually is round.

Several times in the Reddit thread, users also referenced a famous historical example of imperfect geometry that looks better to the human eye—that of the columns on the Parthenon. The Athenians built the columns so they bulged slightly outward at the center. As Smithsonian magazine explains:

This swelling was termed entasis, or tension, by Greek writers, perhaps because it makes the columns seem as if they are clenching, like a human muscle, under the weight of their load. Again, some scholars have long speculated that this design might compensate for another trick of the eye, since a row of tall, perfectly straight-sided pillars can appear thinner at the middle than at the ends.

Users also pointed to the more recent example of why the Nintendo Switch logo isn’t symmetrical either.

Before debating the issue on Reddit, Google’s critics could have done a little research. After all, Google doesn’t just obsess over design; it talks a lot about it as well. Indeed, when it rolled out the “Google G” as part of its larger rebranding in 2015, it directly addressed the issue of why it wasn’t a perfect circle—in this blog post.

Google explained:

The Google G is directly derived from the logotype “G,” but uses increased visual weight to stand up at small sizes and contexts where it needs to share space with other elements. Designed on the same grid as our product iconography, the circular shape was optically refined to prevent a visual “overbite” at the point where the circular form meets the crossbar. The color proportions convey the full spectrum of the logotype and are sequenced to aid eye movement around the letterform.

Again, this is nothing that graphic designers don’t already know. But for the rest of us, it’s a cool little lesson on how imperfections in logos are sometimes what make them perfect.

Via Design Taxi.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.