Written byJohn Allsopp. 2 comments
John Allsopp finds out what makes the creator of Twitter's iconic Fail Whale tick.
If ever there was a case to be made for nominative determinism Yiying Lu must be it. In Shanghainese, (Yiying was born and brought up in Shanghai) Yiying means ‘happy and creative’. To meet this hyperkinetic woman in her early 20s — an honours graduate of the University of Technology’s Design program in 2007, who’s already been named in The Australian newspaper as one of the 100 emerging innovation leaders — is to be instantly affirmed of her happiness. And a brief look at her portfolio is to be assured that she is also most definitely creative, as anyone familiar with her most famous creation will attest.
You’ve not heard of Yiying? Well, unless your only exposure to Twitter is the near constant reference to it in the mainstream media, you’ll have seen her handiwork, the now iconic ‘Fail Whale’, which rears its head whenever the wildly popular service goes offline, an occurrence less frequent now than a year or two ago, when people the world over piled on and began following the likes of Ashton Kutcher and Oprah Winfrey. But more of the whale later. How exactly did a woman growing up in Shanghai in the 1990s end up living, studying and now running a design studio in Sydney, Australia?
Without a hint of irony or self consciousness, Lu says it was Australia’s furry animals which drew her here.
“The reason I wanted to study in Australia was, firstly, I was very much interested in seeing koalas and kangaroos”. She got off the plane and went “straight to the zoo, and…”, she adds a little apologetically, “they are really smelly…and enormous”. Though she hastens to add she still feels the same affection for them — a sinus problem at the time blocking her sense of smell mightn’t have hurt.
Such a fixation with cuddly animals would seem a contradiction for the graduate of a prestigious, selective mathematics and sciences focused school, where design and art simply weren’t on the agenda. But apparent contradictions are central to Yiying’s approach to the world. A ‘left brain’ child by her own admission, the drawers under her bed literally bursting with Japanese and Chinese manga comic books, Yiying chose to pursue a technical education, recognizing the ‘right brain’ shortcomings in her youthful outlook. She says now of that education, which was something she had to work hard to keep up with, that the ability to think mathematically helps her with the more technical aspects of design — from using sophisticated software, to determining the complex folds for her recent ‘Aussiegami’ project — a dozen origami pieces depicting those furry (and some not so furry) Australian animals that you can fold yourself.
The ‘Aussiegami’ project perfectly captures Yiying’s “yin yang” nature: born and raised in ‘the east’, but with a ‘western’ higher education. Yiying strives for simplicity — ‘less is more’ as she puts it. She admires the formality of papercut, watercolor and other artistic traditions from Japan and China. But at the same time she acknowledges that she is something of a magpie ‘collecting the shiny things that she sees’ as inspiration for her work. When people have observed to her that her Fail Whale, for instance, seems influenced by papercut techniques, with its small palette of contrasting colors, and very distinct shapes, Yiying acknowledges this but observes that these techniques aren’t so much conscious, but embedded in her, coming out naturally as she works.
How did Yiying end up being a designer? Perhaps demonstrating that Generation Y is indeed a generation without borders, she says “I never had a serious thought about exactly what I was going to be…I was interested in visual communication, and wanted to go down that pathway”. As with many of her generation, not for her grand plans and schemes, it was rather the constant exploring that made her realize she wanted to be a visual designer. The furry animals (and it must be said, having family living there) brought her to Australia, and the University of NSW. Here, in her foundation year — her first formal exposure to design education — she was awarded the Outstanding Student in Design. In what was clearly a prescient decision, a professor at UTS recruited her to that university, on the basis Yiying says that “they had the best coffee, and they all dressed in black”. A copious coffee drinker, the colourful Yiying is however the opposite of the cliched black wearing design student. These days she returns the favour by teaching design at the UTS part time, along with a huge workload of professional and personal design projects.
What sets Yiying apart from other hard working, creative designers is both something of a complete accident, yet seemingly inevitable. Yes, that whale. Originally designed as an eCard for a friend whose party in Ireland she couldn’t attend, Yiying put the work, among others, on iStockPhoto, a well known stock photo and artwork site. Biz Stone, one of the co-founders of Twitter found it here nearly a year later, and licensed it for use on a page that displays when Twitter crashed. Such was users’ affection for Twitter that the whale became something of a mascot for Twitter itself, with Twitter’s outages almost part of the character of the service, a little like the absent-mindedness of a beloved great aunt. Indeed, the whale was named by the Twitter community, and had its own fan club and web site, before Yiying even knew of the service and its use of her now iconic image. When she did hear of it she was initially concerned that her defining professional achievement would be associated with failure, but she’s put that thought behind her. Rather than reacting negatively, Yiying has embraced this viral community of ‘fail whalers’.
Yiying has also embraced the hundreds of derivative works in homage and reference to the whale, from 3D models, to animated versions, games, cocktails and beers, even tattoos, to the tribute to Michael Jackson that appeared hours after the singer’s death depicting the singer in the place of the whale, lifted up by birds. No crude copy, Yiying says of this work that so good was the illustration, she felt she might have done it herself. It was a particularly apt reworking, she observes, given the original title of the Fail Whale was ‘Lifting up a dreamer’.
Will Yiying Lu turn out to be a one hit wonder like so many viral phenomena? Unlike manufactured sensations, the combination of clearly great talent, with a refreshingly relaxed attitude to others borrowing her work (she only draws the line at others simply selling reproductions of her original work) stands her in great stead in an age where as Kevin Kelly puts it “the digital economy is … run on a river of copies.” One only needs to compare her attitude with that of a previous generation’s wunderkind, Damien Hirst, who has reportedly demanded payment for the use of an image of his £50 million diamond encrusted skull artwork by a teenage graffiti artist.
Presently Lu mixes part time teaching at UTS with work on branding, illustration, art direction and much more, with her own side projects, including her first ever individual exhibition as part of Australian Web Week and Web Directions South, where she’s collaborating with Australian Augmented Reality pioneers MOB. Having been privileged enough to have had a sneak look at this and some of her other upcoming projects, if you were a betting person, you’d be tempted to put a few dollars on Yiying Lu being a name you’ll hear more from in the coming years.