How Yiying Lu bridges art and technology across cultures with Adobe Illustrator on the iPad

Meet Yiying Lu, the designer behind the Twitter Fail Whale, popular food emojis & learn about her upcoming children’s book ‘The Very Hungry Red Panda’.

Yiying Lu stands on stage in front of a big crowd, with her emoji designs for the Hungry Red Panda book in the background.

Yiying Lu demonstrating her emoji designs with the Hungry Red Panda at the International Big Draw Festival in the Apple Store Union Square, San Francisco, October 3, 2019. Photo Courtesy: Stephanie Jan.

By Gianfranco Chicco

Posted on 03-15-2021

“Creating emojis is not my job, it’s my calling,” says artist and entrepreneur Yiying Lu. If you have ever messaged your friends about food, then it’s likely that you’ve used her work. That’s because Lu is the designer of the dumpling emoji 🥟 among many others, including, for all you lovers of bubble tea, the Boba emoji. Lu’s work is not just a bunch of tiny illustrations on your phone, but rather they are a tool that has given a voice to countless Asian communities around the world. Food is culture, something you can share with others even if you don’t speak the same language. “It’s an honor to be able to do that. After I created the dumpling and other food emojis, I realized the cultural impact that online art such as emojis can have on people.”

If there’s a common thread to Lu’s work it’s that it has an impact across cultures, touching the lives of millions of people. She created the Twitter Fail Whale, a whimsical illustration of a whale being lifted by a flock of birds that the social media giant showed on its error page every time the service crashed due to overcapacity (which used to happen very often in the early days of Twitter).

“The original name of the Fail Whale was ‘lifting a dreamer,’ and I designed it to send my good wishes to a friend who lived far away. Through serendipity and fate, Biz Stone — a co-founder of Twitter — found it and it resonated with him in a technological way.” The image had a second life when it later inspired hundreds and thousands Twitter Users to create their own creative expressions:

Yiying Lu was also commissioned to create the “Conan O’Brien Pale Whale” art piece for Conan O’Brien’s Team Coco website & its Twitter page. “Conan’s ‘Work hard and Be Kind’ quote has been an important motto in my life. He also shows that you can integrate both fun and professionalism in your work. I hope this is going to be the future of everybody’s life.”

The Conan O’Brien Pale Whale, courtesy of Yiying Lu.

This year, Yiying Lu received funding from the Adobe Creative Residency Community Fund to support the creation of a children’s book called The Very Hungry Red Panda.

Cover for The Very Hungry Red Panda project, by Yiying Lu.

Cover for The Very Hungry Red Panda project, by Yiying Lu.

Endangered animals for The Very Hungry Red Panda project, by Yiying Lu.

Every child is born an artist

Lu’s name means “happy and creative” in Chinese, which makes sense in retrospect given the work that she creates. A true global citizen, she was born and raised in Shanghai, lived and studied in Australia and the United Kingdom, and is now based in San Francisco. She has worked with clients from all over the world, including Disney China and 500 Startups. Her superpower is being able to create things that break through cultural barriers.

“The keys to tapping into another culture are curiosity and respect. You can only create something that resonates with others if you actually care about the feeling of people who are going to be receiving it.”

Although she has pursued both technical and artistic studies, a big part of Lu’s inspiration comes from children’s books that reach far and beyond her home country. It was the early exposure to myriad stories from realities diverse to her own that shaped how she relates to different cultures. “The books I read and the resources I grew up with allowed me to see how it was to be a global citizen.”

To this day, her work is influenced by that of the Italian writer Gianni Rodari (two of her favorite stories by Rodari are The Telephone Tales and One and Seven, the latter of which she read to me during our conversation), and the Argentinian illustrator Mordillo. Before visiting a place for the first time, Lu will research its children’s books and folk tales to pick up cultural references. “The reason why I love children’s books is that the people who are creating them are doing it from a place of love. Children’s book creators are usually not driven by commercial intentions but by human spirit, and the preservation of culture for the next generation. And thus that content is very nurturing.”

Another important aspect of Lu’s work is the reliance on an element of play (or as she puts it, FUNction), something that raises the energy levels of those involved. “In my work, I define fun as the idea that will make you feel better than in your current state. We eat every day because we need to increase our energy, having fun is the same thing, it increases your energy. It’s a positive loop. If you’re having fun, you feel better, and you do better work too.”

The Very Hungry Red Panda

The Very Hungry Red Panda is a visual journey about an endangered red panda that eats its way through the world, meeting other animal friends, and trying food that is unique to their countries. It’s a celebration of all the things Lu is most passionate about: food, animals, and art, with an overall message promoting biological diversity, cultural diversity, and belonging.

She gave me a scoop into the origins of this project. In May 2019, Airbnb decided to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by hosting an Asian-style night market at its Headquarters in San Francisco. It would showcase Asian Pacific Islander singers, dancers, comedians, and local street vendors, with a thousand people slated to show up. “I was creating these designs for the event on a volunteer basis, after a very last-minute request from my friend Mable Huang who leads Asians@Airbnb. Therefore, I have the creative freedom to create what I envisioned. I chose the Red Panda not only because it is cute, but also because its uniqueness to Asia and its “Endangered” status — its wild population is fewer than 10,000 on earth and continues to decline.

The red panda is also a lighthearted metaphor for the Bay Area artists and small business owners who need our support. Like the red panda, they are endangered because the tech companies provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner to their employees, which doesn’t help for the local small business and “Mom-and-pop” shops. This event was aiming to showcase and support the local artists and small businesses and was run entirely by volunteers from Airbnb Asians Employee Group. Later on, I discovered that the Airbnb event happened to be UNESCO’s World Day for Cultural Diversity, and the following day was the International Day for Biological Diversity. It’s almost like the Universe was trying to tell me something that resonated with what I always care about: Diversity, Nature and Culture. I felt guided into doing something more than a one-off art piece.”

Mable Huang from AirBnB (left) and Yiying Lu (right) at the Airbnb Asian Night Market in May 2019.

In early 2020, Lu received an Award of Honor from the United Nations for her logo design of the United Nations’ COP 15 Convention on Biological Diversity, which motivated her to create more art to advocate for biological diversity.

Ilustration of colorful whale with animals on top of it.

Logo with a whale with different animals on top of it for the United Nation Convention on Biologivacl Diversity.

Creating the United Nation Convention on Biological Diversity logo with Illustrator on iPad, by Yiying Lu.

Yiying Lu’s Adobe residency project started on August 4th, 2020 which happened to be the International Clouded Leopard Day. This motivated her to draw the leopard using Illustrator on the iPad. “Because I’m such a natural procrastinator, I let the Universe show me the way by picking the animals for me. I never even knew that there was a clouded leopard until a spontaneous thought came to me ‘Let’s google what is celebrated on 4th August?’ — Turns out, it happened to be the International Clouded Leopard Day!” Other animals followed, including the lion, the wolf, the orangutan, the whale shark, and the sloth. “I basically looked at the date on the calendar and went ‘well alright, this is what the universe wants, I’m just going to create that animal on that day.’”

Illustration of endangered animals, a jaguar, wolf, lion, and orangutan.

Endangered animals for The Very Hungry Red Panda project, by Yiying Lu.

For this project, Lu decided to do a calendar book first, and later a formal children’s book, featuring the endangered animal associated to any given month. Spoiler alert! Much like in Rodari’s stories, The Very Hungry Red Panda is about finding human connection in a playful way. At the end of the book, all these animal characters will take off their mascot costume to reveal that they were children from different parts of the world.

Illustration of endangered animals, sloth, girraff, elephant and shark.

Endangered animals for The Very Hungry Red Panda project, by Yiying Lu.

Yiying Lu’s tips for using Illustrator on the iPad

Yiying Lu drawing on an ipad with Adobe lead designer looking at her.

Yiying Lu tests Illustrator on iPad with Adobe Lead Designer Gabriel Campbell at Adobe MAX 2019. Photo Courtesy: Wayne Hoang.

Lu’s first tip for creating using Illustrator on the iPad is a very practical one: “A.B.C. — Always Be Charging!” To her, having Illustrator on the iPad provides more fluidity to exercise her creativity, especially in places where she usually wouldn’t be able to work. This is because she wants to be as close as possible to her source of inspiration. “I went to the zoo and used the iPad to capture photos of the animals, input them directly into Illustrator and draw on top of it. I would also take notes and do quick sketches.”

She also values being able to switch between different apps and keeping everything in sync on Adobe Creative Cloud. “I often use both Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Fresco to draw on the iPad, and Adobe Photoshop Fix to remove the backgrounds of the photos. The beauty of having Adobe Creative Cloud is that I can start a project on the desktop, and then go to the zoo to continue editing on the iPad closer to my source of inspiration.”

“Having Illustrator on the iPad gives you an extra option for creative expression.”

Yiying Lu

Yiying Lu creating the Koala on an ipad.

Yiying Lu creating the Koala using Illustrator on the iPad, with the Red Panda peeking on the back.

Lu believes that having Illustrator on the iPad will allow creators to get closer to their natural state of creativity. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I started using Illustrator in the late nineties. It’s wonderful that the tool has become more humane, more natural, and it will definitely encourage more creators to get into digital illustration because they can feel more comfortable with the tool.”

Drawing of a koala on the ipad.

The Koala taking shape on Lu’s iPad.

Illustration of a Koala from the very hungry panda project.

Koala for Very Hungry Red Panda project, by Yiying Lu.

To see a preview of the project, visit the Very Hungry Red Panda on Behance. To learn more about Yiying Lu and her work, check out the links below:

https://www.yiyinglu.com

https://www.instagram.com/yiyinglu

https://www.linkedin.com/in/yiyinglu

https://niftygateway.com/collections/yiyinglu

https://makersplace.com/yiyinglu

Adobe Creative Residency

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Topics: Creativity, Illustration, Creative Cloud,

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