Yiying Lu, designer of the boba emoji in front of the NEMA Art exhibition (Colin Price / For The Los Angeles Times)

Yiying Lu is a NEMA San Francisco resident as well as an award-winning artist, entrepreneur, and bilingual speaker. She was named one of “Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business”, Microsoft’s “Top 10 Emerging Leader in Innovation”, and a “Shorty Awards” winner in Design.

From the Twitter Fail Whale to the Dumpling Emoji, Disney Shanghai Mickey Mouse to the Conan O’Brien Pale Whale, Yiying Lu’s iconic visual designs and creative cross-cultural branding campaigns have enchanted audiences around the world. We were able to go behind the scenes with Yiying and get to know her better.

“My name is Yiying Lu, which means Happy Creative Land. “Yiying” (怡颖) means “happy & creative” in Chinese and “Lu” (陆) means “Land”. I strive to bring this land of happiness and creativity we all have access to out of more people in the world, while being a physical embodiment of what my name stands for.“

How did your interest in unifying dualities (connecting east and west, art and tech, business and humor) originate?

Yiying: Connecting East & West: To me, connecting the East and West is deep in my DNA. I am currently based in San Francisco, before that I was living in and receiving my college education in Sydney, Australia and London UK since I graduated from high school in Shanghai, China. I was born and raised in Shanghai and lived there until I graduated from high school. Shanghai always has been a very multicultural place — it is a meeting point of both traditional & modern aspects; the fusion of East and West. When I was born, China had just opened its door to the rest of the world. I remember in the early ‘90s a huge wave of foreign trade and investments happened in the country. In order to maintain their authenticity while also catering to the local audience, Western brands adopted interesting mixed uses of both eastern and western design elements. For example, KFC and McDonalds’ use both English words and Chinese characters in their logos. Coca-Cola had traditional Chinese patterns embedded in their package design. Pizza Hut even offers Peking Duck Pizza. Many other brands adopted similar approaches. Shanghai has been known for adopting avant garde ideas and fashion, while preserving the traditional culture and ideology — such as the Shikumen (a traditional Shanghainese architectural style combining Western and Chinese elements that first appeared in the 1860s). This juxtaposition of both Western and Chinese cultural elements set the foundation for my design ideology, creating design experiences which embodies local flair in the context of globalization.

Connecting Art & Tech: Both grandfathers and both grandmothers on paternal and maternal sides of my family really cultivated my curiosity and wonder about art at a very young age. Especially my grandfather, who has encouraged me to draw and make art pieces since I was 2 years old, and I happened to really have a knack for — which activates my creative mind. As a teenager, I decided to attend a technology high school that focused on mathematics — which stimulated my analytical mind. This occurred while I was growing up in Shanghai. It was the combination of both areas that gave me such a passion for design, as design combines both left-brain and right-brain approaches, the analytical mind and the creative mind.

In 2008, one of my art pieces became the “Twitter Fail Whale,” which earned me a “Shorty Award” winner in Design in 2009. To receive the award, I flew to the United States for the first time from Sydney to New York. Due to the fact that at that time, there were no direct flights from New York back to Sydney, I decided to make a 3-day impromptu trip to San Francisco to meet my virtual friends who supported me for the awards in person. Occurring right after the 2009 financial downturn, this 3-day window organically became an unexpected networking opportunity sparked by the quick turnaround by local contacts to throw a “Fail Party,” inspired by my Fail Whale art to “Celebrate Failure,” that drew an attendance of over 300 people. This turned into an opportunity to build real-life friendships and business relationships that have lasted over a decade! In the next few years, I found myself creating iconic brands and design campaigns globally with startups developed out of these introductions. These life-changing three days set up the foundation for me to move to San Francisco’s eventually and became a creative director at the Global Accelerator 500 Startups in 2015. Over the last 10 years, I have created design and marketing campaigns to help startup companies generate millions in business value.

On a mission to bridge the gap between art and tech, I also designed the pan-cultural Dumpling 🥟Emoji and other food emojis 🥡🥢🥠 onto billions of people's phones.

Connecting Business & Humor: I was also on a mission to bridge the gap between business and humor. In 2017, I became the first Creative Collaborator in IDEO China, where I debuted my first Co-Create program with the team at IDEO Shanghai, where I led creative workshops and storytelling sessions. Since then, my co-create programs have resonated with global companies like Apple, Google, Salesforce and Airbnb, leveraging creativity to elevate corporate culture by bringing creativity, humor and storytelling into a corporate space. I always believed that the work we do should not only have FUNCTION, but also inherently be FUN. Because, if you look at the word “FUNCTION”, the first three letters are FUN! I am really interested in using design and creativity to remind people of this levity within all the work we do. and the result was unanimously positive. I recently conducted a virtual Design Clinic creative workshop with Stanford medical school professors and students. The audiences were asked to measure their energy level in the scale 1-10 at the beginning and the end of the workshop. The result was unanimously positive: 4-6 in the start, to 8-9 in the end. Everyone's feedback is that they came out of the session feeling more creative, inspired, and energized.

I truly believe that whether you are a B2B (Business to Business) or B2C (Business to Consumer) enterprise, all companies are P2P, which is People to People! And if the people, which are the essential building block of any organization, are feeling good and happy, the productivity and quality of work will naturally increase, which will ultimately result in better financial outcomes naturally.

How does your unique upbringing (growing up in China and educated in Australia and the UK) position you in today’s global market?

Yiying: My upbringing across 3 continents allowed me to gain unique insights and international perspectives, which are both globally relevant and culturally sensitive.

I LOVE languages, I speak Chinese Mandarin, Shanghainese, Australian English, UK English and American English. I also happened to have a knack for picking up new accents, whether it’s Japanese, Korean, Italian, Indian or South African … The truth is, my unique upbringing prepared me to be a global citizen with experiences spanning 4 continents. This in turn, helped me connect with people beyond their physical appearances and geographic locations. I always joke about how I speak Yiyinglish, Yi means “Happy” and Ying means “Creative” in Chinese. It is my language and it is everyone’s language, that’s why we say: I speak your language, meaning I can relate to you.

The more countries I have physically lived in and traveled to, the deeper understanding I gain about the commonality we all share in common as a human race, which made me more empathic and connected. The more diverse cultures that I have experienced through, the more cultural diversity and sensitivity I gained, which made me more relatable and curious.

I believe in the “Age of Artificial Intelligence,” rising, being humane, empathic, relatable to others, and being globally relevant and culturally sensitive are paramount for any business to succeed in this global environment. Explore Yiying’s design project with Disney Shanghai here!

Do you have a favorite piece of work? What about exhibits?

Yiying: Haha, my cheeky answer is my favorite piece is my next piece I am working on!

But seriously though, my favorite piece is "Lifting a Dreamer," which I created back in 2006-2007, later became the Twitter Fail Whale, a symbol as Twitter's service outage during 2008-2013. It has inspired hundreds, probably thousands, of funny, clever & amusing homages and take-offs from users globally.

“One of my favorite exhibits is during Ethereum Summit NYC in May 2018, a few artist friends and myself raised $190,000 in one night by auctioning our art pieces. One of my limited editions “Lifting a Dreamer” Giclee print was auctioned for $12,000. It's the 2nd highest price of the auction after the CryptoKitties. All proceeds went to the Art & Blockchain foundation to educate more artists to learn the blockchain technology.” - Yiying

Talk show host Conan O’Brien commissioned Yiying to do a piece for his new show on TBS based on the “Lifting A Dreamer” in 2010. Yiying was able to meet Conan in person at his studio in 2011!

Topping the Ethereum Summit, however, Yiying’s favorite exhibit of all time was last year’s solo show at NEMA San Francisco, which drew a full house of attendees. The event even drew celebrity Chef Martin Yan (Yan Can Cook, So Can You!) who came to meet the residents! Over 400 guests came on the opening night last year and it was a huge success. You can reminisce over the evening with more photos from the show at NEMA here.

(Photo Courtesy: Dirk Wyse)
(Photo Courtesy: Dirk Wyse)
(Photo by Dirk Wyse)
(Yiying Lu and Chef Martin Yan, Photo by Dirk Wyse)

What’s one thing people may not know about you?

Yiying: Back when I was studying in Sydney and London, as an international student, I had to pay ten times more tuition than local students. To this, there was no student loan option available to international students. In order to make up for the education cost, I worked many service jobs: My very first job was waitressing in a dumpling house (This perhaps set up the foundation for me to design the dumpling 🥟 emoji). I also worked at a sushi shop 🍣, an ice cream shop 🍦, a donut house 🍩, a salad bar 🥗, and I even had a job as a door-to-door bilingual interviewer, where I knocked on doors of many neighborhoods throughout the city, asking hundreds of people to fill in questionnaires ... I learned a lot from working in service jobs: it helped me to be humble and have more empathy for people, as I understood how hard it is to make a living. This also prepared me to become an Artrepreneur.

I remembered I had a job at a dumpling restaurant, and it taught me how hard some people work. There was this old lady who’d make shrimp rolls all day. Who knows, if she had the opportunity and education, she might be a better designer than I am. I realized that she was always sacrificing her potential to let others do their thing, so there is no reason why you should not work hard.

In hindsight, this also set up the foundation for me to design the pan-cultural food emojis 🥟🥡🥢🥠 and boba emoji onto billions of people's phones.

Connect with Yiying Lu on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Yiying hosts a Free YouTube Channel to help people to stay creative during challenging times, all are welcomed to subscribe!

Yiying is also offering a 5 Day Communication Workshop, on Thursday/Fridays from August 20-September 4. This workshop is for everyone and would be useful to anyone who is interested in learning a global mindset, design empathy to expand their service to global marketing. This course can be helpful for startup founders, as Yiying has been teaching this at 500 Startups to founders around the world. Sign up soon to take advantage of early bird pricing!

Just for fun:

Name 3 artists you admire:
Miyazaki Hayao (Manga)
Milton Glaser (Branding / Design)
Georgia O'Keeffe (Fine Art)

If NEMA were an emoji what would she be?
The sharp ears and tinted presence reminded me of the Badass Bat Woman Building.

How long you’ve lived at NEMA: 5 years

Your favorite view: Rooftop

Favorite part of living there: The community and people I have met and befriended with.

(Photo Courtesy: Kevin Kelleher & Emily Trinh)

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