Yiying Lu: The Failure Interview

The creator of Twitter’s Fail Whale presents her first solo exhibit.

Yiying  Augmented Reality Exhibition
Yiying Lu demonstrating her Augmented Reality concept. Photo by Starry Image Photography.

If you’ve ever used Twitter, you’re probably familiar with Yiying Lu’s work. Lu [@yiyinglu], a bubbly twenty-something artist based in Sydney, is creator of Fail Whale, the whale being lifted by a flock of birds image that appears on screen whenever Twitter—the wildly popular social networking and micro-blogging service—is “over capacity” due to “too many tweets.”

For Twitter users, the appearance of Fail Whale serves to soften what would otherwise be a thoroughly frustrating encounter with the site—and, as Lu puts it, “makes people realize that there’s more than one way to look at failure.” Meanwhile, Fail Whale—and to a lesser extent Foul Owl (Twitter’s “account suspended” icon), which she also created—have brought Lu a certain measure of fame, and helped get her design career off to a flying start.

Late last week, Failure—with an assist from Skype—made a New York-to-Sydney connection with Lu, who was more than happy to discuss the origins of Fail Whale, her forthcoming exhibit, and her feelings about being closely associated with failure, a condition to which the editors of Failure can certainly relate.

Tell me about your background and what led you to become a designer?
I was born in Shanghai and came to Sydney in 2002 after I finished high school. Then I did my design & media foundation year at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and afterwards did my bachelor’s degree at University of Technology Sydney, where I majored in visual communications and design. I also did exchange study in the U.K. at Central St. Martins College of Art & Design in London.

The reason why I became a designer…? My name is two characters in Chinese. “Yi” [pronounced “yee”] means happy, and “Ying” [pronounced “ying”] means creative. When I was little I wanted to become an astronaut, but my dream failed [laughs]. So I drew a flying whale instead of going to the moon.

Tell me about the inspiration for creating Fail Whale.

I had done a lot of traveling and studying overseas, and so I had a lot of friends—not only in my hometown, but everywhere I’d been—and whenever people would invite me to parties I’d have to say, “I’m overseas. I can’t go.”

Being that I was studying design—and very much into artists like René Magritte, Salvador Dali and Paul Delvaux—I decided to respond with an e-card, instead of just e-mailing the words “I’m sorry, I can’t come.” So I created a visual that delivered my message, hence the idea of a huge whale being lifted by little birds flying overseas. I used myself as a metaphor. I’m the whale [laughs].

The reason it’s a whale and not an elephant or any other animal is because I was living in New South Wales. And the reason that the background is turquoise—similar to the Twitter background—is because I was born in December and turquoise happens to be my birthday color. That’s a meant to be, obviously.

When it was finished did you have a sense that the Fail Whale image might be something special?
I did. I was really happy with the form and how the whale looked. It calmed me a bit. I felt it sent positive greetings to my friends.

When did you find out that the image had been adopted by Twitter?
In May 2008 a Twitter user emailed me and asked if I was aware that the image was being used by Twitter.

And how did Twitter discover it?

When I finished the image—called Lifting up a Dreamer—I posted it on iStockphoto.com, both as a networking opportunity and to showcase my work. [Twitter co-founder] Biz Stone found it on iStockphoto and decided to use it for Twitter’s “site down” message.

Who gave Fail Whale its name?

If you go to whatisfailwhale.info you can see the tweet from Nick Quaranto in New York [on Twitter @qrush], who had a eureka moment. He said, “The Twitter whale needs a name. I propose Failwhale.”

How did you feel when you first saw Lifting up a Dreamer on Twitter?

I had mixed feelings. It’s funny that my final year major project was a fortune cookie conveying the message: This page cannot be displayed. It’s almost the same sort of idea, as the whale is also saying: This page cannot be displayed.

But at the same time it was quite dreadful because it was the beginning of my career as a professional designer and now everything I do is associated with failure [laughs]. Yet it was good to know that somebody appreciated my work.

What about this business of the Fail Whale becoming endangered? With Twitter more stable these days, one doesn’t see it as much anymore.
I’m very happy about Twitter becoming more stable because that’s the way it should be. But the Fail Whale itself will never be endangered because I will be creating friends to support it. So graphics-wise I’ll be looking after the whale. During Twitter’s stable time it will be swimming in the sea, saving the birds some work as well [laughs].

Tell me about Fail Whale’s new friends.

Fail Whale’s next friend will be an orange cat with turquoise eyes called Fish Cat. And I’ve got a deer too. It has the same expression [as Fail Whale]; the eyes are closed and it’s daydreaming.

I’m also launching an extended family for Fail Whale. For example, there’s Traffic Stopping Giraffe, which will make its debut at my exhibition, [opens October 2 at the Web Directions South Conference in Sydney]. Three of the spots on the giraffe’s body become a traffic light, and one of the dots is blinking red. It’s a traffic light giraffe.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about Foul Owl.

Foul Owl is one of my other creations—a licensed usage by Twitter. Since then other companies have also commissioned me. For instance, Glam Media commissioned a Fail Dolphin for Tinker.

I’m sure Fail Whale has created many new opportunities for you. What’s the downside of being associated with such a widely recognized image?
The downside is that my inbox gets clogged [laughs]. I get so many emails from people that I can’t respond to them all, and I get less time to sleep.

Tell me more about your upcoming exhibit.

The show is being sponsored by Australian Web Week, and will consist of two parts. One part is my artwork on canvas. The other is the Augmented Reality (AR) part, created in conjunction with MOB, pioneers in AR technology.

I came up with the concept of having a huge screen in front of viewers, who will get a T-shirt that has a QR code. Viewers will sit in front of the screen, and the [bird] cage on their T-shirt will be detected by a camera, so on the screen, they’ll not only see themselves wearing the T-shirt, there will also be animation—a huge blue bird coming out from the T-shirt. And on the body of the bird—which is in a speech bubble shape—observers will see other people’s tweets. So it’s an interaction between the viewer, his or her screen, and somebody else using Twitter.

What do you hope to get out of the exhibition?

It’s a great chance for me to interact with the public. I don’t often have the opportunity to see my audience face-to-face and get their feedback. But it won’t just be me showing my work and other people passively receiving it. Everyone will have the opportunity to experience the fusion of art, design and Twitter through AR.

Do you have any regrets in terms of your career thus far?

It has been a good experience so far. If I hadn’t put Lifting up a Dreamer on iStockphoto.com none of this would have occurred. At the same time, I’ve learned a lot from the experience. It’s great that Fail Whale has become one of the icons of Web 2.0, but I’ve learned that being a creative, a lot of care needs to be taken in terms of intellectual property.

My only regret is that I have lot of interesting ideas, but due to the global recession, some of my partners have been forced to reduce or cancel some of the projects. And being a young entrepreneur, I need more connections and initial funding in order for my business to sprout and grow. I guess in this climate of economic failure, everyone can use a smiling Fail Whale to make them feel better!