Whale of a time

YiYing Lu

Yiying Lu is constantly quoting her heroes. “Social media is like teen sex,” she says, quoting Google’s Avinash Kaushik. “No one knows how it works but everyone wants to try it.” Lu explains that as a student she was curious about the power of social networks, and experimented without knowing what the results would be. For the Shanghai-born designer, the results were mindblowing.

It all started with a (literally) uplifting image: an e-card she designed for friends depicting a smiling whale being lifted out of the ocean by tiny birds. “The whale symbolised my big wish. It was so big that I couldn’t hold it. I had to ask all the little birdies to help me lift it up and deliver it to you from the ocean.” The design student uploaded her image to iStockphoto because she didn’t yet have a website to showcase her work. She was paid a small, one-time-only licensing fee. It wasn’t long before an Irish fan emailed to alert her to the presence of her design on popular microblogging platform Twitter.

When failure’s not failure

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone found and licensed the image in 2007, using it as the site’s 404 page: a cutesy image to display when Twitter’s network broke down. Lu says people loved the image so much they would tweet her to say they sometimes secretly wished Twitter would go down so they could see the whale. T-shirts were made, tattoos were inked, and suddenly Lu’s image was internet gold. And while she’s a little bit distressed her happy image has come to be associated with failure (Twitter users instantly dubbed the image ‘fail whale’), Lu can’t deny the power of the whale to open doors.

US late-night television host Conan O’Brien’s team approached Lu last year to commission a design to celebrate his new show on TBS. Having found her work on media and technology blog Mashable, O’Brien wanted his very own ‘Pale Whale’. Lu puts it down to her own social networks and positive thinking: she wanted to make art for her heroes. “I’ve been a fan of Conan for years, and it was such a great opportunity to work on something for somebody that you truly respect.”

It’s not what you know…

The Sydney-based designer was beginning to see the power of social networks in the digital age. “It’s so interesting to explore the possibility of finding like-minded people using social networking tools like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. And at the same time, that’s how people find me. I think 80 percent of my jobs are actually through clients coming to me.”

Lu’s iconic whale image won her an accolade in the 2009 Shorty Awards, so she travelled to New York to accept her prize and stopped off in San Francisco. At a party there, she met a Twitter engineer (posing as the DJ) who introduced her to Twitter’s CEO and creative directors. She also met Dale Larson, who would go on to achieve minor internet fame when he proposed to his girlfriend via Twitter. Larson commissioned Lu to design his wedding invitations, and blogged about the kissing penguins Lu created. His connections in the social media world brought the image to the attention of Mashable and internet newspaper The Huffington Post.

Unbeknownst to Lu, this piece of press set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead her to start a company with two complete strangers. Watching her career from the sidelines was John Doffing, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was busy envisioning a perfect marriage between Lu’s unique style and a material he had access to for displaying large wall graphics. Late in 2010, Lu received an email out of the blue which said ‘I really like your artwork. Want to cofound a company with me?’ While a few years ago she might have dismissed the email as spam, in 2010 Lu had a few more tools at her disposal.

Lu checked John Doffing out on Facebook, and decided he was a real person (complete with wife, puppy and Cambridge education!). So she took the gamble of a lifetime, and said yes. Lu is fascinated by the idea of meeting people virtually. As the virtual world grows, our willingness to trust is shrinking, she says. “Nowadays, everyone is not very willing to see anyone. They hide behind Twitter and Facebook and aren’t updating their status in real life.”

Had Lu ignored the power of online networking, she’d be a design teacher with one iconic image and a moderately successful graphic design business. Now she is a celebrated designer sought after by some of the biggest names in media and technology and a partner in a successful online business. “Most of the time people say social networks are token, they’re useless. But I find social networks are really, really valuable if you know how to use them.”

From web to walls

For seven months, Lu, Doffing and soon-to-be investor Jason Weisenthal communicated over Facebook, Twitter, emails and Skype. Doffing and Weisenthal had a revolutionary new material similar to vinyl wall stickers and wanted to see Lu’s work on it. The premium self-adhesive, repositionable fabric paper is soft but very strong and can take large art prints. In mid-November last year, Doffing suggested using the material to put on an art show of Lu’s designs at the world-famous Hotel des Arts in San Francisco. Lu had never done a solo show, and with only 10 days to pull it together, she had no time to worry about flying to San Francisco to host an exhibition alongside two men she’d never met. “I’d never been to the actual location. I had to do everything virtually.”

In a process Lu describes as “pretty magical”, someone took photos and measurements of the exhibition space and Lu designed everything on top of the photos. She sent her designs to Weisenthal who organised specialty printing, and on 2 December, Lu’s exhibition opened in San Francisco, and she finally met the men she would go on to launch Walls 360 with. “It’s really surreal, but it wasn’t awkward at all. It’s pretty awesome if you think about it how virtual communication breaks the awkwardness from the reality.”

After the show, Lu met venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, a man she describes as the “godfather of startups”. Author of the book Enchantment, Kawasaki told Lu he was jealous of O’Brien’s Pale Whale and begged her to design him a Kawasaki butterfly. So the humble, bubbly 20-something found herself hanging out with some of the celebrities of the media and technology world. On this trip, she met Matt Mullenweg (CEO of WordPress) and got a chance to reconnect with the bigwigs at Twitter. “It was really great to connect with a lot of people that I admire, from companies that pretty much affect all of our everyday lives.”

Shortly after coming home, she pulled together another San Francisco art show in just two weeks at the request of G’Day USA, an Austrade initiative designed to help Australian companies access the US market. Exhibiting at Microsoft, she was delighted to watch Lars Rasmussen (of Google Maps fame) peel her artworks from the walls and attach them to his shirt. Among the serious suits and business executive, Rasmussen was walking around with her illustrated koalas, emus and kangaroos stuck to his belly.

The writing’s on the wall

While the Twitter fail whale is an amazing story, it won’t make Lu her fortune. She has set up a website to sell merchandise emblazoned with the whale, but essentially, her earnings from the famous whale boil down to a small one-time licensing fee. Walls 360 is partly a means of commercialising her art for the general public.

Lu founded the business alongside Doffing, Weisenthal and Tavia Campbell with a mission to give digital art a physical presence. “Our vision is to bring the virtual world to the real world,” Lu explains. “We really see the potential of democratising the art world to everybody and expanding the notion of art. We want to make art become something that is more approachable and affordable to everyone.”

Walls 360 sells Lu’s artworks as repositionable fabric wall prints, and eventually hopes to enable artists to upload their own work to order wall prints. The partners have already secured licensing to print Tetris tiles and life-size Star Trek characters, and are in discussions with another major gaming company and a best-selling children’s book publisher. “We want to bring the content to the real world,” she says. Lu is amused by the idea of 25-year-old men revisiting childhood by playing Tetris on their walls.

As people spend more and more time in front of a computer, Lu doesn’t want people to forget about decorating their environment. “We have a lot of walls, and it’s lonely and it’s boring.” Walls 360 is already so successful it’s struggling to keep up with demand. But Lu says she works for love, not money. “A lot of projects, like the wedding invitations or the wall flowers (designed for Doffing to give to his wife on Valentine’s Day) and even the fail whale were designed because I felt the need to do the design. I had the need to create that because I love someone or I had the passion for doing it. It’s rewarding financially but I think when you do it from the heart the art really shows its life.”

Lu has loved drawing since she was a little girl, but went to a technology high school. “I think it’s actually a perfect fit. By nature I am more right-hand side of the brain, I love creative stuff and drawing and I don’t like order or logical thinking.” She got order and structure from her school and university training. “I learnt logical ways of thinking. Otherwise I’d be too arty farty and I couldn’t do all the things that I’m doing now.”

Lu says her success has come from simply following her dreams and instincts. She quotes Steve Blank: “Entrepreneurship isn’t a job. It’s an art. It’s a calling.” While her career jumps from high point to high point, Lu says it’s all been very fluent. “I feel the need to do it. It’s not a career, it’s just a calling. Someone is almost whispering and telling me I have to do this.”

What’s next for the dreamer?

In the end, it all comes back to that picture. “The initial picture that got me all those opportunities and amazing experiences, that was actually the essence of the picture. It was about someone who has a lot of beautiful things to give to the world. You work really hard and it’s just amazing to see how things get picked up.” Lu says the help of her community was invaluable. “I couldn’t do anything on my own.” But she’s not talking about the family next door. Her community is a network stretching all over the globe, based on a web of social media connections and built almost entirely in a virtual world.

When she speaks of the future, Lu is optimistic, but she’s not making plans. She quotes yet another hero: “Never be cynical, be kind and work hard and amazing things will happen” (Conan O’Brien). These are the mottos she lives her life by, and so far, they’ve served her well. Lu must be the most famous graphic designer in cyberspace.