I wanted to be this bridge between art and technology. I also wanted to be the cultural bridge between East and West.
Yiying Lu is a visual communicator well-known internationally for her graphic icons that transcend language barriers. A prolific designer, entrepreneur and university lecturer, she is based in San Francisco but shares her time between Sydney and Shanghai.
In every project, she faces significant challenges. “It’s a constant dance between fear and conquering fear,” she says. “The best reward is you’ll eventually come up with something that’s better than you expected and sometimes better than anybody else expected.”
Yiying’s international profile soared with her creation of “Lifting a Dreamer” - a white beluga whale lifted by a flock of orange birds on strings that she licensed to Twitter in 2008. The so-called “Fail Whale” popped up when the Twitter network was overloaded until Twitter stopped using it in 2013.
The whale won Yiying “Best in Design” at the inaugural Shorty Awards for social media held in New York in 2009. She was also named a “Top 10 Emerging Leader in Innovation” in the Weekend Australian Magazine’s Next 100: Emerging Leaders, sponsored by Microsoft.
Yiying grew up in Shanghai and says she spent her time reading international comic books, such as Japanese manga, American Garfield and Peanuts and watching cartoons from around the world.
She came to Sydney in 2002. After a foundation year at another Australian university, she transferred to the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). “I wanted to study something that was close to industry and could apply to real life,” she says.
While she was a Bachelor of Design student at UTS, Yiying started working as a casual academic in her second year. She also commercialised her annual UTS studio projects, licensing animal playing cards to an American company, and sea animal face-masks to SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium.
A six-month study exchange at Central St Martin’s in London, one of the world’s top-ranked art schools, clarified her career path. “It taught me design thinking skills and how I could apply my graphic design to business,” she says. This led to her first job designing for global advertising firm J. Walter Thompson in Shanghai.
By her fourth year, Yiying had built a significant client base. After she graduated, she expanded her studio practice working on projects for Maybelline, Expedia, Microsoft, and Disney Shanghai. She was also creative director for 500 Start-ups, a global venture capital firm and start up accelerator.
Her latest adventure is a Kickstarter project with her friends. She’s designed emojis of a dumpling, chopsticks, take-out box and fortune cookie and plans to persuade the Unicode Consortium to adopted them as official emojis. She was also recently invited to IDEO Shanghai as the first Artist in Residence in China for IDEO’s Creative Fortnight Program, where she created the animated dumpling social media stickers.
Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to have a clear purpose, a “lighthouse”, so that even when you face challenges, you always have something to guide you.