Design Crime: Cutesy “Fail Whale” Error Messages Are Bad Business

When online services like Twitter and Tumblr fail, adorable mascots and vague apologies send exactly the wrong message to users.


Everyone knows the Twitter “fail whale.” The adorable sleeping cetacean (originally titled “Lifting a Dreamer” by its designer, Yiying Lu) is arguably more recognizable as a piece of branding than Twitter’s own logo. In the wake of catastrophic service outages in December, Tumblr followed Twitter’s example, replacing its formerly staid “fail page” with a newer, cuter version designed by web cartoonist The Oatmeal. “If [your service is] going to go down, you might as well blame it on an imaginary animal like Twitter did,” the cartoonist wrote.


Nothing against The Oatmeal (personally I think his work is hilarious), but Tumblr should know better — and other web services would do well to buck the trend, too. Here’s why:

It’s bad customer service

As designer Paul Ford recently and keenly wrote, the web is a customer service medium. Whenever something changes or goes wrong — regardless of whose fault it is — users take it very, very personally. Twitter’s “fail whale” was originally meant as a gentle palliative to this knee-jerk response. “Don’t be alarmed,” it seemed to be saying. “This isn’t that important in the big picture. Take a deep breath and come back later.” When Twitter was just a funny little experiment used mainly by the geekerati, this message felt honest and even refreshing. Four years later, when Twitter is a platform for augmenting political revolution and doing real business, the cutesy “it OK, don’t be cry” message sounds tone-deaf at best and willfully negligent at worst.

Tumblr was undergoing its own “Twittermorphosis” from hipster plaything to mainstream tool when its December outages occurred. Its “We’ll Be Back Shortly” message offered little comfort to businesses like Ben Huh’s Cheezburger Network (which had to temporarily relocate its popular blog The Daily What to WordPress), but at least it communicated some semblance of seriousness. So it’s strange that, as Tumblr tries to rebuild its credibility as a platform in 2011, they went in the opposite direction: mimicking Twitter’s painfully outdated mascot with their own roly-poly “Tumbeasts.”


As a user, I don’t think unplanned downtime is cute. Granted, my personal Tumblr is not exactly mission-critical. But Ben Huh is literally losing money every second that The Daily What disappears due to Tumblr’s server problems. Are “Tumbeasts” the best way to re-convince him of Tumblr’s reliability? Or any of these mainstream publishers and media companies, who had all just started dipping their toes into the Tumblr waters? I doubt it. The fact that none of these users are paying customers (Tumblr is free, after all) makes no difference. On the web, everyone is a customer — and every site is in the customer service business, whether they like it or not.

It’s bad communication

Web-app provider 37signals had just as bad a December as Tumblr did: for one godawful week, their Campfire chat service — which actually does have paying customers — went kaput. Jason Fried, the designer who runs 37signals, went into major customer-service damage control mode on several fronts at once, including personally engaging with furious users on Twitter and email.

But generic “technical difficulties” messages are anathema to him, too. 37signals doesn’t have canned “fail pages” to greet users during unplanned outages; instead, “the message is tailored to the issue,” Fried tells Co.Design. “The design [shown below] usually houses the error message, but the error message changes depending on what’s up.”



According to Fried, users saw a variation on this message during the Campfire outage which specifically addressed the issue and included a link for further explanation.

What Fried knows — and Tumblr and Twitter apparently don’t — is that even irate users appreciate clarity. Twitter’s “Fail Whale” offers an ambiguous explanation and little else; Tumblr, meanwhile, thinks no information at all (wrapped up in outright nonsense) is the best policy:


The only other place you’ll find such exaggerated silliness is on The Simpsons. When a service I rely upon goes plooey, I want assurances and explanations, not invitations to fantasy. That’s not to say that levity and humor don’t have their place: 404 errors, for example, almost always result from user mistakes and are minor enough that smirky responses can take the edge off.

Taking the same approach to unplanned downtime, though, just makes the whole operation look like amateur hour — which, presumably, is not how David Karp wants his up-and-coming platform to appear. To his credit, Karp did publish a sober explanation of/apology for Tumblr’s massive outages after they occurred; but that only makes Tumblr’s newly-nonsensical “fail page” (which offers no link to a real explanation) seem more awkward and out of touch. It’s this schizo messaging that does the real damage, says Fried, not necessarily the adorable imagery. “Cute is fine, as long as it’s also clear,” he says. “What isn’t good is confusion.”

It’s bad design

Do you want your company’s most recognizable mascot to be synonymous with failure? Do you want to associate memorable imagery with poor performance in your customers’ minds? Do you want the symbol of your crappy service to “go viral” or become a cultural phenomenon? That’s the legacy of these designs: they turn a company’s worst aspects into their biggest advertisements. It’s as if Con Ed plastered “Bob the Blackout Beaver” all over New York subways, or Nike made a Super Bowl commercial set in a sweatshop: It just makes no $#&*ing sense.


What would make sense? As with any design solution, it’s all about what you want to communicate. Personally, I’d appreciate a message that says “We take our performance seriously — perhaps too seriously.” I’m no designer, but if a web service had a fail-page like this, I wouldn’t just use the site — I’d invest.

dog gun

Note: I tried to reach Twitter for comment but their press-inquiry page malfunctioned — and coughed up a generic, vague error message. Which I figured was comment enough.

[“Lifting A Dreamer” © YiYing Lu]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets