Remember the Twitter Fail Whale? Here are three design tips from its instigator

Inc. Southeast Asia | 9 August 2017
Image by @YiyingLu 

Creative Yiying Lu shares tips on how start-ups can come up with design ideas that marry local flavor and global reach

Pretty much everybody in the world—on Twitter, that is—has encountered the Twitter Fail Whale.

The serene-looking whale carried by a flock of orange birds has made many an agitated Twitter user feel less impatient about waiting, as Twitter engineers deal with site difficulties, to finally churn out their next 140-character bout of verbal diarrhea. Because seriously, who can sustain a sulk when confronted by the world’s most optimistic beluga?

Originally titled “Lifting A Dreamer,” the Twitter Fail Whale is a great way of illustrating the transformation of art into design. Borne out of the imagination of the artist and creative director Yiying Lu, who is also a guest design lecturer at New York University Shanghai’s Program of Creativity & Innovation, the Twitter Fail Whale’s road to digital fame was truly serendipitous.

What started as a birthday e-card Lu had created for friends overseas—the whale represented “the biggest wish” and the birds would carry that wish across the ocean—caught the attention of one of Twitter’s co-founders, who eventually licensed the illustration because he saw the whale as a symbol for capacity issues, and the birds as the Twitter employees.

“I think the reason why the image became popular is that people could see themselves in the image. Maybe people feel that empathy,” surmises Lu. “To me, that’s very interesting because that image for me was just an expression, an art piece. But the moment Twitter applied the illustration as the Twitter error page, the illustration became a design.”

As much as the Twitter Fail Whale represents, in a positive light, a negative experience, Lu shares that for her it represents something magical. “I’m not religious or anything, but I do believe there is some purpose or magical reason behind a lot of things, because if not for that illustration in the first place, I would probably live a very different life,” she shares.

Today, Lu has under her belt a wealth of experience that includes working with clients like Disney, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Sony, Expedia, and Maybelline NY, to name a few; and the Twitter Fail Whale fame has since reached greater heights when none other than Conan O’Brien paid homage to it with his own rendition, the Conan Pale Whale.

In an exclusive interview with Inc. Southeast Asia, Lu relates that there’s plenty of room to inject creativity in the start-up space. She dishes out three ways to do it:

1. Start with your ‘why’

Lu shares that having a really good understanding of your start-up’s core value—why your company exists—is essential. “Really finding the purpose behind what you are doing is crucial for you to come up with something really original, authentic, and one that really speaks to an audience,” she says.

2. Designing for a global audience entails two things: globalization and localization

From a global standpoint, it is imperative that your brand is instantly recognizable, advises Lu. She points to Coca Cola as an example: “They’re a global brand but they’re also doing a great job of localizing for different markets. There’s Coca Cola in different languages, from Chinese, Hebrew, Japanese…It’s important that your brand is very distinctive globally.”

Translating a brand, tailoring it specifically for localization is just as important, relates Lu. “When you go into a market like India, for example, which has more than 200 languages, you have to make sure your brand speaks to everyone and at the same time tailor it to a specific segment. That’s something start-ups need to start thinking about when they decide to scale,” she shares.

3. Content is King; Engagement is Queen

According to Lu, it doesn’t really matter if your start-up is in the hardware or software space. Businesses who succeed are those who are able to “engage with its audience, and in a very personalized way. I love what Jack Ma from Alibaba said—whether you’re a B2B or a B2C, it’s always P2P or People to People. In any business, it’s important to put the human first, put the audience first. And you do that by using empathy,” she says.

With such disruptive technology as artificial intelligence and augmented reality upon us, it’s even more crucial to really articulate what empathy is.

Empathy, says Lu, is what spells the difference between art and design. She says, “With art, you don’t have to worry too much about empathy because it’s more a form of self-expression than anything. But design is almost complementary—you have to consider the audience first, then the means or method of communicating your idea. Put the audience before yourself and then facilitate that conversation.”