At first glance, Twitter’s instantly recognizable brand mascots might appear to be nothing more than “Twitter Bird” and “Fail Whale,” but take a closer look. Through sea and sky, this iconic tweeting/error page alerting duo have a unique backstory that highlights how they were conceptualized, designed, and named for the social media platform.
1. Originally named “Larry the Bird” he’s now known as… the Twitter Bird.
On March 1st, 2011, Twitter casually mentioned the name of its feathered friend mascot through a tweet. The tweet, directed at late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon, references journalist Ann Curry’s natural gift for sketching the Twitter bird and even includes the hashtag #sketchLarry.
Continuing to fly under the radar, Larry would be name-dropped a few more times in February 2012. He popped up in a Twitter blog post in a reference for creating a shortcut followed by a mention in a tweet from former Twitter product manager Ryan Sarver. This time, we would see a picture of Larry’s mascot design evolution in a presentation from Douglas Bowman, former Twitter creative director. Incidentally, Bowman was responsible for the 2012 mascot design — the same one we still see being used today!
Somewhere along the way in 2012, Larry returned to his Twitter Bird namesake roots all over again. While it remains a bit of a mystery as to why he shifted back to his original name, the answer may be traced back to Bowman. The New York Times reported that in a 2012 Twitter redesign announcement, Bowman’s unveiling of the sophisticated new design was led by remarks that “Twitter is the bird, the bird is Twitter.”
2. Simon Oxley, the original Larry designer, didn’t even know Twitter existed.
Let’s expand on this headline with some backstory.
The earliest Twitter Bird design in 2006 was a slightly understated version of 2012’s last redesign. Created by British graphic designer Simon Oxley, the bird had a slender frame with feet and a stylized eye with none of the signature ruffled feathers we see today. Oxley sold the design on the stock photo site iStock and Twitter purchased it for just $15.
Oxley’s design began to make the media circuit which was made all the more amusing by the fact that Oxley wasn’t familiar with the site at all. But the sightings would later turn out to be short-lived. Twitter turned to company founder Biz Stone to conceptualize their logo because iStock images couldn’t legally be used as company logos. Stone worked alongside designer Philip Pascuzzo to design the next incarnation of the site’s mascot — 2009’s bright eyed, chipper, blue Twitter Bird.
3. The “Fail Whale” illustration was actually intended for a birthday card.
For years when Twitter went down, a blissful beluga whale being lifted in the air by eight orange birds was there to greet us on the error page. Internally, Twitter thought such an optimistic image symbolized that their team was aware of the problem and working to fix it. Externally, Twitter users everywhere had a different nickname for the secondary mascot: “fail whale.”
But the whale was never meant to represent failure. Rather, the image came from a stock image site and was designed by Australian artist Yiying Lu. The original illustration, titled “Lifting a Dreamer,” was actually a concept for a birthday card.
4. Since then, “Fail Whale” has been christened “Win Whale.”
Even though Twitter discontinued the Fail Whale in 2013, its legacy lives on and is still very much beloved by Twitter users and Lu herself. As Lu revealed in an interview with The Atlantic, she’s happy the design was so popular with fans. The whale has since been dubbed the “Win Whale” and keeps a gallery of some of her favorite tributes to the icon on her site, including those made with LEGO, tattoos, illustrations that swap out the whale for Homer Simpson, and even a Fail Whale Pale Ale beer tap handle.