Five Questions with Artrepreneur Yiying Lu

Photo courtesy: Kevin Kelleher & Emily Trinh

About Yiying Lu

Born in Shanghai China, educated in Sydney Australia and London UK, currently based in San Francisco, Yiying Lu is an award-winning artist, entrepreneur, educator. She was named one of the Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business 2018, Microsoft’s “Top 10 Emerging Leader in Innovation”, and a “Shorty Awards” winner in Design. Yiying speaks internationally on Cross-Cultural Design, Creativity & Innovation in both English and Chinese Mandarin. She has been a bilingual speaker at global conferences such as TEDx Palo Alto, SXSW, Web Summit, RISE, GeekPark so on. In the last decade, she has created iconic art for brands from Disney to Microsoft, and built brands for hundreds of tech startups during her time as a creative director at 500 Startups. Yiying is also the artist behind the Dumpling Emoji and the “Twitter Fail Whale”. She was the first international creative collaborator at IDEO.

Five questions with Yiying

1. How did you get to where you are today?

My name is Yiying Lu, which means “Happy Creative Land”. “Yiying” (怡颖) means “happy & creative” in Chinese and “Lu” (陆) means “Land”, thanks to my grandfather. To this, I aim to bridge between East & West, unifying the duality between Art & Tech, Business & Humor, Work & Life – which coincidentally helps me live up to my name.

Connecting East & West: I was born and raised in Shanghai and lived there until I finished 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. Thus, my childhood memory consists of the abundance of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Cheetos, Shin Ramyun Noodle Soup and Japanese Manga (e.g. Saint Seiya, Crayon Shin-chan, Kenshiro: the Fist of the North Star, and Sailor Moon). The continued evolution of blending both Western and Chinese cultural elements in everyday life today coupled with my upbringing and experiences across 4 continents (Asia, Oceania, Europe and North America), to me, has rooted connecting the East and West deep into my DNA. 

Connecting Art & Tech:  Even though I am naturally drawn to arts and humanities, I  graduated from one of the top technology high schools in Shanghai (because I had a bet with my friend in primary school, she challenged me because I sucked at math). What can I say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Then, I went to study as an international student at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia and at Central Saint Martins – University of the Arts, London UK. Both the technological and artistic education I have received helped me to develop a more integrated approach towards everything I do, as I am both analytical and artistic, I am able to see things in different perspectives.

Connecting Work & Life: I created a lot of personal art pieces as a distraction from my university’s senior year thesis. One of my art pieces became the “Twitter Fail Whale,” which got featured in the New York Times, and earned me a “Shorty Award” winner in Design in 2009. This turned into an opportunity to build real-life friendships and business relationships that have lasted over a decade! Over the next few years, I found myself creating iconic brands and design campaigns globally with startups developed out of these introductions. Ultimately, I moved from Sydney to San Francisco to become a creative director at the global venture capital fund and 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.

Connecting Business, Culture & Education: I was appointed to create the first bilingual recruitment campaign artworks for Disney in Shanghai, China. The campaign helped the global company localize for Chinese audiences and successfully assist them in recruiting 100,000 employees. Adding onto this, I also designed the pan-cultural Dumpling 🥟  Emoji and other food emojis 🥡🥢🥠 (Plus, the Boba emoji will appear in Fall 2020) onto billions of people’s phones. Following this contribution to everyday digital communication (B2C), I’ve hosted co-create programs with global companies (B2B) like Apple, Google, and Salesforce. I have also spoken at worldwide conferences such as TEDx, SXSW, Adobe MAX, Web Summit, Stanford University, NYU Shanghai, Tsinghua University, and Beijing University. Ultimately, I take on ongoing global design and branding projects. I, in turn, share my processes and learnings for global education and evolving business audiences to help inspire them to further connect everyone around our continuously changing world. 

2. What advice would you have for someone looking to get into your space? Alternatively, what advice should they ignore?

Be true to yourself
Know your worth
Lift people as you rise.

3. What have you learned about building a great company culture?

Having worked with hundreds of startup founders and larger corporations, I noticed a common thread in great team culture across these businesses: a strong emphasis on People First. We need to make sure to create experiences to connect people, empower people, and inspire people. This is what art can do. 

Over the past 10 years, I have leveraged creating art as an effective medium to make and deliver experiences that evoke belonging. Also by bringing artwork to life into physical items, that both draw out and encapsulate lasting memories.

Celebrate Unity & Diversity: I created this unicorn art piece in 2016 during my time as the Creative Director at 500 Startups. It was originally created as a personal piece to celebrate the spirit of entrepreneurship (Startups aspired to be Unicorns – as the unicorn is a term in the business world to indicate a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion. The term was coined in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, choosing the mythical animal to represent the statistical rarity of such successful ventures.). It was also created to celebrate the SF Pride weekend and the LGBTQ community. Since then, this art piece has shown up on T-shirts, stickers and banners to celebrate entrepreneurship, diversity, and unity throughout the startup ecosystem around the world.

Image: 500 startup team at the Pride Weekend 2016, San Francisco

Creating Milestones to Recognize Time & Togetherness: While we are working with others, it is easy to lose track of time. One way to leverage art for team culture building is to create icons to mark milestones for time markers on shared camaraderie. 

For example, this May, I created this phoenix art piece to celebrate the spirit of resilience during COVID-19, coinciding with the SOSV’s Chinaccelerator 10th anniversary, to inspire the startup community to rise above challenges and celebrate entrepreneurship and unity throughout a challenging time

Image: the Phoenix art piece and Chinaccelerator team

Highlight the FUN from FUNCTION: 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! And do this when I communicate this with my audiences and collaborators, I incorporate these aspects of “Fun” and “Play.”

Besides connecting both the east and the west, both art and technology, 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 hosted my first Co-Create program with the team at IDEO Shanghai, where I led creative workshops and storytelling sessions, “Drink & Draw” sessions, which allow team member in the corporate setting to unwind, learn and explore creativity together. Later, I create physical copies of the artworks I created during my time at IDEO Shanghai for the team to have as a piece of memorabilia. 

Image: IDEO Shanghai team

Ultimately, I create iconic art pieces which are scalable and can be transfixed onto physical items, such as posters, T-shirts, banners, stickers that people can wear, display and hold on to, as a physical reminder of the ephemeral experience they have had during the time in the company. These visual art pieces become physical visual anchors, evoking all of their experience together as a community, whether through working or celebrating together.

And that is how the human experience is made. To this, it is also how we create culture because culture is a shared experience through widespread human interactivity together.

4. What excites you about the future of technology?

Enable learning without borders globally, such as e-learning.  Platforms and mediums that enable artists to monetize their work whether through services like Patreon or e-platforms Redbubble enabling exhibition and monetization.

Additionally I’m excited about online education platforms such as SkillShare enables people to learn, interact, and connect with people from anywhere in the world, in a sustainable, carbon-neutral, and accessible way.

5. One habit that has the most impact on your life

Have FUN and get stuff done. 

As mentioned above, I always believed that alongside the hard work we do should not only have the FUNCTION, but also have the FUN. Because, if you look at the word “FUNCTION”, the first three letters start with FUN! 

Running a startup is hard work, starting a company is hard work. And we need to have fun to balance it out. 

Discipline and focus are my foundation, and spontaneity and fun are my guiding star.

But don’t just do as I say, do as I do.

Bonus: One important truth that few people agree with you on? (Peter Thiel’s favorite question)

Science and technology is not the answer to everything. 

Patrick Lee mentioned in a recent interview with MOX that “artificial intelligence (AI) is the next wave after computers, the internet, and mobile (in that order). In this, he forecasts that AI will become more and more integrated into our lives to the point where it will be built into everything the same way computers, the internet, and mobile connectivity are weaved into everyday life today.

Despite all of the technological advancements around us today, I believe art is still what makes us human. To this, some of the biggest problems of the world cannot be solved by technology alone. In fact, these challenges can be tackled and overcome collaboratively by artists, scientists and technologists. Here are a few examples from my talks on cross-cultural innovation that illustrate how I’ve experienced and executed this as an artist & designer in practice: 

Upcoming Activity: Designing for a Global Audience Online Workshop:

Yiying is offering a 5-day workshop, 09:00 — 11:30 am PDT on Thu & Fri, August 20 – September 4,  Early bird price $350 (Reg. $450). It’s a marketing, design and communication workshop for all levels, no design skill required. 

Register here

This workshop is for everyone. It will be useful to anyone interested in learning a global mindset, designing empathy to expand their service to a worldwide market. This course can help startup founders, as Yiying has been teaching this at 500 Startups, Chinaccelerator, and MOX founders around the world.


Drawing from ten years of her own work as a cross-cultural designer, Yiying will show how to:

  • Explore the hidden complexity of cross-cultural design;
  • Color symbolism and meaning across different cultures;
  • Iconography, signs and symbols, figures & ground, principles of Gestalt psychology;
  • Blend typography to bridge cultural gaps;
  • Conduct research to understand audiences from all over the world;
  • How to tie everything together to create a design that connects with very different audiences across the globe.

It’s an integrated course for all levels; no design skill required. Yiying will share her cross-cultural design examples through logos, branding, and marketing campaigns she created for Disney Shanghai, SXSW, Twitter, and more. She will also break down the design elements and show you how to communicate with a global audience effectively.