If you’ve been on Twitter in the past month, you’ve probably bumped into the Fail Whale once or twice. The popular social network has been crashing pretty consistently from an influx of tweets and traffic. Seeing the whale, you (like everyone else) might have been frustrated — you might have yelled at the screen. You might hate that whale.
If you do, chances are you don’t know Yiying Lu or the story behind the Fail Whale, originally called “Lifting a Dreamer.” The whale (first drawn as an elephant) was created by Lu as a sweet greeting to her friends overseas. The minds at Twitter found it on iStockphoto and used the image as a 404 page (replacing a picture of a LOLcat).
The whale, once an image of Lu’s well-wishes, was supposed to represent the Twitter team’s effort to fix problems of scalability. Instead, the associations have largely been negative. Lu is hoping to turn that around even as she begrudgingly calls herself the “Fail Whale” designer.
Hate it or love it, Lu got on the phone with us to chat about her early artistic influences, her new collection of animal designs, announced exclusively on Mashable, and why she hates the term “Fail Whale.”
Lifting a Dreamer
Q: How did you get into graphic design? Was it something you always loved?
Lu: I suppose it’s one of those things you find yourself more good at — artistic things, like drawings and shapes and color … I didn’t know that I was an artistic kid until I went to [a] technology high school and I’m like, “Oh my God, everyone is so good at math and I’m pretty shit!”
… I was sort of self-taught in high school times. I would spend two hours or three hours every day just sort of browsing all these artistic books like Salvador Dali and René Magritte … I didn’t even know I was learning it. I just though it was one of those, “It’s like you’re eating main meals but you thought it was a snack.”
Q: How did that experience inspire your personal style?
Lu: … If I wasn’t trained in the tech high school I probably wouldn’t be as confident to use all these new technologies, and all these new websites and all these new things, really. You wouldn’t be able to have the guts to try it and that was particularly interesting and insightful.
Q: Do you still draw by hand or is it all on the computer?
Lu: … I think the beauty of it is that I have all these hand drawn illustrations still here, but then technology enables me to scan them in and put them online to share with more people. I guess it’s a whole experience — a combination of technology and organic processes that I truly appreciate.
Q:You posted the Fail Whale image on iStockphoto. Did it end up anywhere else?
Lu: Oh yeah, I only put it on iStock at the time. I was sort of using it as a showcase because I didn’t have a website at the time.
Q: For you, is the image still “Lifting a Dreamer” even though everyone calls it the “Fail Whale?”
Lu: I mean, that thing really bothers me and I really wanted to be very honest and transparent to you because I hate the name Fail Whale. Really, I do hate it … I’m like, “It’s not a Fail Whale, it’s like, originally, just a message for my friends far away and it has absolutely nothing to do with failure.” The original icon and symbolism was originally about good wishes and happy thoughts, and that’s what this image is all about. And I guess that’s why people really love it.
Q: Are you more frustrated by how Twitter has used the image, or how it’s been publicly named?
Lu: It’s really just about how people interpret the picture. Rather than people seeing the picture as a sign of technology’s failure, they should see it as a sign of, you know, “sit back and relax.” You know there’s a problem, but at the same time, enjoy the time being. It should be a visual soother, like, it should be a visual therapy rather than something that people would get really mad [about]. Sometimes you will see some tweets [that] go “Fuck the Fail Whale!” and I just go “No, it had nothing to do with the whale!”
Q: Have you been able to make any money from the image?
Lu: Yes, I do have a merchandise website. I am selling some t-shirts … and it’s really great that now there are more opportunities from other people. People start to negotiate and talk to me about licensing possibilities. It’s just good to find all these good people to work with. I think the whale image actually enabled a lot of opportunity for connecting with the right people in a lot of different areas.
Q: How are you trying to reclaim the image — to turn it from something negative to something positive? Is it just the fail whale forever now?
Lu: Again, it’s something I’d leave to the public to decide because originally the name of the fail whale was a meme and it came out from the public. I really appreciate the fact that people started to dig out their own creativity by interacting with the original image. So, I guess I don’t want to force anything. I just want to see the organic process and just sort of let it sprout as it should be.
Q: Has it opened doors or pigeonholed you into one design style?
Lu: It has been really helpful, although … when you showcase your work, some people would say, “Oh, you’re just the ‘Fail Whale girl’ and I’m sort of stuck with it at the moment. But it actually does open a lot of doors to collaborate with people such as the LTL prints, and I don’t know whether you know the story behind the win penguins… And I thought, that’s how we just sort of connect. Purely because of love of art and love of technology.
Q: Is there anything that you regret about the Fail Whale?
Lu: I really have no regret at all. I’m really just so grateful and really, really thankful for this opportunity happening…[Designer Stefan Sagmeister] said something that the goal of my design is “touching somebody’s heart,” and I guess I was very, very fortunate to have this chance to touch — hopefully to touch — millions and billions of people’s hearts by showing them the artwork during a 404 [error page]. If the image can give people a happy thought or a moment of peace and also generate so many new creative projects, I think this is probably the biggest gift I could ever receive. And so I really don’t have any regrets. All I have is really just gratefulness.
Q: As long as they stop calling it the “Fail Whale?”
Lu: [Laughs] As long as people aren’t swearing at me or at the whale!
Lu is launching a new series of wall graphics in the next few weeks based around the Fail Whale/Lifting a Dreamer, some of which include the animals featured in this story. Aside from generating some revenue, Lu loves the wall graphics for their interactivity: It’s art that can be moved, changed and modified by the viewer.
Let us know what you think: Is Lu destined to just be known for her whale? Do the new designs spread joy or simply tap a franchise? What’s your reaction?
More Dev & Design Resources from Mashable:
– Inside the Mind of One of the Web’s Hottest Designers [INTERVIEW]
– 10 Tools for Distributed Developer Teams
– HOW TO: Develop iPhone Apps With Staying Power
– 11 Ways to Speed Up WordPress
– 10 Tools for Getting Web Design Feedback