“I’d like to be a bridge between art and technology, as well as a cultural bridge between East and West, to inspire more people to create.”
— Yiying Lu

From the Twitter Whale and Dumpling Emoji to Disney Shanghai Mickey Mouse, Yiying Lu creates iconic brand designs which transcend linguistic barriers and enchant a global audience.

You’ve likely seen Lu’s work, whether you realized it or not. Her artwork “Lifting a Dreamer,” an international fan favorite, caught the attention of the team at Twitter, who decided to use the design for the new sites error page – thus prompting the name “Fail Whale.” The Fail Whale quickly dominated the global creative conscious, resulting in sculptures, murals, and more inspired by the Whale.

Lifting a Dreamer (the Twitter Fail Whale), Yiying Lu

To experience another notable project of Lu’s, look no further than your mobile phone: In 2015, Lu made the surprising discovery that there was no emoji for some of her favorite foods, particularly dumplings🥟, boba and other staple Asian staples 🥡🥠🥢 that have transcended geography to become part of the international palette. This absence had to change, and luckily Lu was up for the challenge. Although inspired by the Chinese potsticker dumpling, through this project, Lu realized that the dumpling was a universal food that manifested in different forms across the world – a clear example of how food brings us together as a global community. As a result, Lu created several more important emojis, bringing together the community through visual communication. Check out this BBC interview with Lu: “How Designing Emojis Became My Calling” to learn more about her emoji design journey! 

Lu speaks to our global community with a universal language rooted in creativity through iconic illustration and design. Rich symbolism and visual storytelling are key elements of her artwork, deeply inspired by her experiences as a global citizen of the world.

Focusing on universal themes like food and nature, Lu highlights our human experience, prompting the realization that we are more alike than we may think; integrating art and technology as a bridge to connect global audiences, inspire togetherness and cultivate community.

Learn more about Yiying Lu in her interview with us below!

Yiying Lu in the News

For more press, visit Yiying Lu’s website.

Interview with Yiying Lu

Tell us a bit about yourself – what brought you to San Francisco?

I was born and raised in Shanghai, China. I spent my university years in Sydney, Australia, and London, UK. In 2008, around my college graduation, one of my art pieces, “Lifting a Dreamer”, became the Twitter Fail Whale, a symbol of Twitter’s service outage in its early days. It has inspired thousands of funny, clever, and amusing homages and take-offs from users globally. This art piece got featured in the New York Times and earned me the “Shorty Award” winner in Design in 2009.

For me, this turned into an opportunity to build real-life friendships and business relationships that have lasted over a decade! Over the next few years, I found myself creating brands and creative campaigns globally with startups, through working at the intersection of art, technology, and business. My clients have included Disney, Apple, Google, Adobe, and the hilarious Conan O’Brien!

In 2015, I moved from Sydney to San Francisco to become a creative director at the global venture capital fund and accelerator 500 Startups. Over the last 10 years, I also traveled to more than 20 countries, including Singapore in 2016, as a bilingual speaker on cross-cultural design. In April 2021, Mayor London Breed appointed me to be a San Francisco Arts Commissioner to bring more art and artists back to the City.

How did you get into digital art? What is your favorite thing about it? 

I didn’t get into digital art, digital art got into me. Haha. 

I started my artistic practice like most kids who are using crayon, pencil, and pen on paper. But over the years,I found it sometimes feels quite wasteful (and expensive!) to create art pieces, because of material usage: paper, paper, ink, and so on, and it’s not portable when traveling because, I used to do a lot of water color sometimes, I can’t find the piece I created years ago. Around the same time, the personal computer became available in the late 90s, and I started to learn how to use Adobe Softwares in local learning centers in Shanghai when I was in high school, such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, etc, It was pretty cool to see that I can make as many art pieces as I want on the computer.

What / who inspires you creatively? 

What inspires me is what brings out our true nature. 

Nature always inspires me: Trees, Flower, Birds, Animals, Sea shells, Insects, Whales, Fishes, constellations, planets. 

The nature of humans as well: music, food, books, travels, cultures, communities, mythology and Children’s Books!

Nature is the nurture of my creativity. 

There are many people inspired my creative career, one of them is Milton Glaser, the designer behind the iconic I ❤️ NY symbol. And I’m forever grateful to have a rare opportunity to interview him and learn from him back in 2017, where we chatted about technology, intuition, and what really matters in life, I hope this short interview inspires more people.”

How would you describe your style? How has it evolved to get here? 

I am style agnostic. I don’t adhere to one specific style, because I believe that styles are different ways of expression. Same subject matter but with different styles could evoke very different emotions towards the audience. 

Over the years, when working with digital art, my style changed and evolved a lot…

You have worked on some amazing projects over the years – Are there any that have really stuck with you and why? 

Over the past ten years, I have worked with hundreds of startup founders and large corporations. One common thread I noticed is that: The best work I created was always inspired by the community and for the community. 

For example, the Unicorn was created in 2016 to celebrate SF Pride weekend with my community at the global startup accelerator 500 Startups.

The phoenix was created in 2020, commemorating the global startup accelerator SOSV & Chinaccelerator 10th Anniversary and the resilience of the global entrepreneurial spirits during the pandemic.

I realized that the art that I enjoy creating is something that could be a reminder of the ephemeral human experience, and creates belonging. These art pieces become visual anchors, evoking people’s experience together as a community, whether through working or celebrating together.

And that is how the human experience is made. To this, it is also how we create culture because culture is a shared experience through widespread human interactivity together.

Tell us about the Makers of Magic collection – What inspired you and what do you hope people take from it? 

After working in the startup world for the last 12 years, the news of MakersPlace’s recent Series A raise got me thinking about the world of startups and what it takes for founders to be successful in such a competitive space: resilience, strength, imagination, courage, creativity and even luck. And then I realized that those are many of the same attributes of successful artists. So I created a new collection that embodies what I see as the vital qualities of creators, artists, startup founders and makers of all kinds.

I also realized that even though I’ve spent the last 12 years creating commercial art for brands, tech startup companies, and larger fortune 500 companies, using design to promote business and engage global consumers, helping companies raise millions. Yet, I could not make a living off my personal work, where I created to celebrate the human experience with one another. 

Before NFT, digital art was either free or in a supportive role to facilitate selling products in the business world. We all know it has intrinsic value, yet it can not be manifested without attaching to a business or product. However, the existence of NFT adds the financial layer to digital art. It makes the artistic content become immutable digital collectibles, which can protect and help monetize digital creators’ work. This digital asset class is empowering creators and revolutionizing how they can create real value from their work. NFT can change my life and other creatives like illustrators, animators, musicians, and even entertainers, to leverage digital collectibles to engage their community authentically and supplement their existing revenue streams. There’s many creatives that have been impacted by the pandemic career-wise, and could benefit from the use of NFTs.

Which character(s)/qualities do you identify most with from the series?

Most of the time, I do feel that I identify most with the Hippocampus for its creativity. 

Since I recently went through major surgery two weeks ago, the amount of transformation I have been going through, physically and emotionally, in the last year and this year has taught me resilience – like the Phoenix, rise above.

Lastly, the Golden Unicorn was special to me as well, as it was inspired by the historical Gold Rush in California and the Startup Community.

Golden Unicorn: Luck, Yiying Lu

Get in Touch

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