Bridging the Gap Between Creativity and Innovation with Yiying Lu

June 18, 2020
What we learned from the designer of the Twitter Fail Whale

If content is king, then engagement is queen, says Yiying Lu, an award-winning artist, entrepreneur, global educator, and the designer behind many iconic internet illustrations and emojis, including Twitter’s “Fail Whale”. During a NewCampus virtual mentoring session, Yiying was sharing how she approaches her creative and innovative work by combining function with fun, businesses and culture, technology and art, and the West and the East. 

“As a designer or as a business leader,” Yiying says, “it is important for us to infuse these cultures and histories into the product… so that we can not only create important business value, but also generate more cultural value.”

In this post, we peer into her role as an artist working in the space of cross-cultural design and innovation to distill key learnings from Yiying’s virtual mentorship on bridging the three gaps between creativity and innovation.

Bridging fun and function in design

The first gap that Yiying often bridges in her work is that between the function of the design and the fun that it can potentially bring. According to Yiying, when you bring function and fun together in product design, the product stands out from the competition. To see how, let’s compare two scenarios.

In the first one, imagine you’re using your computer as usually but suddenly the computer crashes and your screen blanks out, or if you’re a Windows user, you are suddenly presented with the “blue screen of death”. Yiying would say you might be filled with shock, not knowing what to do with the unexpected breakdown.

Did you know that the Twitter Fail Whale as we now know it was originally a birthday card design made by Yiying?

Now in the second scenario you are using the social media app Twitter. But as you’re about to tweet what you had for lunch, Twitter gets a service outage, and the photo of the meal you can’t wait to eat is lost on the internet. But unlike the first scenario, instead of a jarring message on your screen, you are greeted with a cute illustration of a whale, designed by Yiying in 2008. Here, the mood brought about by the Fail Whale is different to the blue screen of death—with Yiying’s design, there is a level of enjoyment, amusement, and light hearted pleasure.

Bringing out the fun in function in a design like the Fail Whale allows the design to ignore linguistic barriers for the audience. It explains the reason why the Fail Whale is able to speak to audiences around the world.

Bridging art and technology

Designing emojis wasn’t Yiying’s job or career, but a calling, she says. Since 2017, the emojis for dumplings, takeout boxes, chopsticks and fortune cookies that we can now use are thanks to Yiying’s superpower of art and imagination. 

The early stages of the emoji designs began with a friend of Yiying’s, who invited Yiying to have dumplings one day. This was when Yiying’s friend texted her exclaiming that a dumpling emoji was non-existent in their phones. Soon after, Yiying realised that the dumpling is universal in many cultures—the khinkali in Georgia, gyoza in Japan, mandu in Korea, , empanadas in Spain,and the list goes on. Knowing this imbued Yiying with a sense of creative responsibility to make a dumpling emoji exist on the keyboard. “The world deserves a dumpling emoji,” she said. So, in 2017, the Unicode Technical Committee had approved the 4 new emoji designs from Yiying and we can now see them in our digital keyboards.

Still, Yiying hasn’t stopped designing new emojis. And if you enjoy having bubble tea, Yiying recently announced the release of a bubble tea emoji, expected to be released in the late quarter of 2020.

Top: The official dumpling emoji approvide by the Unicode Technical Committee. Bottom (left to right): Different versions of the emoji for Google, Twitter, Emojidex, Emojipedia and Facebook respectively.

Bridging content and form

When Yiying was the Creative Director of the venture capital firm 500 Startups, she managed to capture the nuances of different cultures in her redesigns for 500 Startups for different local markets. In one example Yiying shared, she was working to localise their brand in Hindi for the Indian market. At first glance, it might seem like a simple task, translating “500” in arabic numerals to “500” in Hindi numerals, which is “५००”. As Yiying pointed out, for non-Hindi speakers, the Hindi script would look like 400, which is not what she wanted.

The re-imagined logo for 500 India by Yiying.

But even if Hindi is used in the design, Hindi is only one of the 22 major languages officially spoken in India. So, to have a fair representation for all these languages in 500’s logo, Yiying’s solution was to integrate these languages into the logo’s border, and to use the colours of India’s flag in the logo to reinforce the identity of 500 Startups in the Indian community. Similarly, when Yiying had to redesign 500’s logo for a women entrepreneurs’ event in Korea, Yiying took a similar approach in integrating the Korean phrase for “women”, yeoseong 여성,into the logo.

Yiying redesigned the 500 logo to fit in the themes of female empowerment and the Korean culture for a joint-event between 500 and Google.

Bridging business and culture, East and West

Finally, when Disney opened their Shanghai Disneyland, Yiying had to take some iconic Disney characters and incorporate Chinese elements to it in a way that had to also be inherently Chinese. The goal was to create or reimagine a handful of Disney characters in a way that was “authentically Disney and Distinctly Chinese”, said Yiying.

These characters, symbolising different values and themes, were: Mickey Mouse, which symbolises magic; Mulan, symbolising courage; Snow White and the seven dwarves, symbolising teamwork (or as Yiying puts it, a symbol for women leadership); Simba, symbolising growth; and Elsa, symbolising dreams.

The Shanghai Mickey Mouse conceptualised and designed by Yiying.

Initially, Yiying thought redesigning the characters was going to be tricky because apart from Mulan, the other characters do not appear to have any clear connections with Chinese culture. Even so, she  managed to draw inspiration from Chinese art and culture—such as paper cutting, traditional Chinese clothing—to bring out the essence of Chinese culture in the Disney characters.

In all, Yiying said that in introducing elements of a foreign culture into a new brand, the local customs and traditions of the target market should be recognised and respected. For her, coming up with good designs for brands that involve the blending of different cultures comes from being able to unify seemingly different ideas, with the foundation of respect and understanding of the cultures. It is from this, Yiying says, that we can truly generate new business and cultural values, values that are the very key to benefit our future.


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