Category Archives: Design

So long and thanks for all the fish

My last official day at Paperight was the 15th of April 2014, but after a glorious week in Tankwa Town, I returned to do some freelance jobs that Arthur needed to be done.


I was most happy to be able to be part of choosing and announcing the Cover Art Competition winners, finally. The winners are:

1st place: Neill Kropman (21) of Red & Yellow School of Magic for Robinson Crusoe, Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness
2nd place: Lucelle de Villiers (21) of Stellenbosch University for To the Lighthouse
3rd place: Ivan de Villiers (21) of Stellenbosch University for Walden

We’ve Tweeted, posted on Facebook and released a blog post about the results here.

Then I put together a press release to send out to local media. Most media outlets have been chomping at the bit for WDCCT stories so the story has gained some extra interest. The World Design Capital marketing team has also circulated the news. They were particularly impressed by the quality of the designs. As if we would have chosen duds though, really?

I have also had the opportunity to work on the Textbook Database. A new project for Paperight, but by no means a great change of tack, the Textbook Database will be a complete list of prescribed books for all courses across all major South African universities. Tedious though the data capturing may be, this kind of comprehensive list doesn’t exist and will have extraordinary value. This list adds to Paperight’s goal of inclusivity within the book trade and increased access to books. It also falls neatly under the banner of the #textbookrevolution.


If I could say one thing that I have learned during my time with this dynamic team, it’s that start-ups are not for sissies.

In other news, I am emigrating to France on the 17th of June so my time at Paperight is drawing to a close for good. If I could say one thing that I have learned during my time with this dynamic team, it’s that start-ups are not for sissies. I am immensely grateful for the chance to test myself and learn from an impressive group of young people who have already proved themselves in a tough industry.

And to think that major industry players are reluctant to hire young people, even though the quality of young professionals in South Africa is mostly untapped, for whatever reason. I found Paperight after being told by three major publishing houses in South Africa that they did not offer internships for graduates (paid or unpaid) and that as a rule they do not hire young people because the book trade, in their words, is a dying industry. Well, with that attitude, they’ve struck the last nail in their own coffin.

One day I hope they will see the mistakes that they’ve already made and realise that books will never really go out of fashion. With approximately 48 million people who don’t buy books in South Africa, there is still a lot of work to be done to make sure that everyone has equal access to such a simple resource.

I am very proud to have been part of a project that has already gained incredible traction in changing perceptions about the culture and benefits of reading. Paperight has also served to expose the negative attitudes and influences that exist within the book industry, as well as highlighted certain shady practices that perpetuate a system of exclusion.

Everybody should join the Paperight party. They always have cake. Ciao for now.

Designing the #textbookrevolution

The bulk of my time at Paperight during 2014 was taken up by the #textbookrevolution campaign. This was by far the most well-planned, well-executed and successful campaign we did to date. For the first time, we agreed upon our messaging, plan of attack and the scope of materials that we needed far in advance of starting work on putting the campaign together – a ridiculous thing to say in retrospect, but meticulous marketing planning was something we only learned late into the game, mostly due to the fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants approach the entire company sometimes had for most of the time I was here.

The bulk of my work for the #textbookrevolution focused upon executing everything we had learned up until this point:

  • focusing on outlets that we could trust
  • defining areas in which our advertising could be focused
  • creating easily customisable materials
  • curating compact and effective product lists
  • synchronising our messaging and launching our campaign on online platforms as well as with physical materials
  • focusing on cheapness and availablility as our main selling points

As such, the material designing process was by far the easiest out of all the campaigns that I worked on.

To make the campaign seem more coherent, all materials and official posts made by us made mention of the hashtag #textbookrevolution. This was a successful idea – it made it easy for us, for example, to construct and conduct conversations focusing on campaign-related topics on social media, as well as being an innate call-to-action for social media commentary on the topic.

A fun project that we worked on was the creation of a series of beer coasters that had games and quizzes on them, along with Paperight advertising, including taglines with variations on “Cheaper Textbooks. More Beer”. I created six designs – three games and three quizzes – that were printed in quantities of hundreds and passed out at university campuses and student bars in Stellenbosch and Cape Town. It’s difficult to gauge exactly how well these coasters increased engagement, but we did find numerous mentions of them on social media, often along with the #textbookrevolution hashtag.

The weak link with this campaign, again, was some outlets’ reluctance to reciprocate the amount of effort we put into advertising their businesses with some semblance of preparation for or engagement with the campaign on their part. Again, potential customers were turned away from outlets that we had informed of the campaign, or had bad service from them. This was probably, I might speculate, because management had not passed on word on the campaign to their front desk staff. In some cases, outlets were mentioned specifically on posters, and had agreed to be mentioned on those posters, but turned away or offered customers lacklustre service when they came in.

This has been the most major flaw in the workflow of the Paperight model as it exists now. The success of the model depends on too many variables outside of our own control. Although that’s the nature of our business, it does not work as well for outlets as we would like it to, as we essentially outsource the bulk of our end-user customer experience. In other words, a customer’s experience with us is only as good as it is at the outlet.

And, another thought, for every one customer that was turned away and told us of their experience, how many were turned away and stayed privately dissatisfied?

Lessons learned from Now What?

now-what_together-we-pass-paperight_cover_low-res_20130228One of our better-sounding early marketing ideas was to break into the Unisa market – and thus get Unisa’s attention – by creating a book that would appeal to students struggling with Unisa’s bureaucracy and merciless stinginess. In early 2013, we teamed up with Together We Pass, a Unisa-specific study-aid service, to produce the book.

I wasn’t directly involved with the commissioning process of content, etc., but I did design the book and headed the marketing for it. Although the experience of designing the book was something I really needed to further my skills, and appreciated it as such, the editing and layout phases were both quite frustrating. This was chiefly because the content I had to work with was changed at inopportune times. The result was a product that, although I thought was useful and could potentially sell very well, I didn’t completely feel great about. In the end it didn’t sell fantastically, for a number of reasons:

  1. Together We Pass gave away the book for free to all of their subscribers, in other words, the few thousand people most likely to buy the book. Even though we thought we might potentially get exposure from this move, it was not a beneficial decision for Paperight in the slightest, especially as we took the bulk of production costs. A lesson we learned could be, in other words: never try to sell something that someone else is giving away for free.
  2. The cover and the messaging for the book weren’t as strong as they could have been, probably because we were trying to be nice to Unisa, in the hope that they would more readily partner with us. It probably should have been more provocative – in retrospect we did a lot of things with kid gloves when we really should have tried to grab people’s attention by any means necessary.

All in all, Now What? was an interesting experiment and an amazing learning experience, but a very frustrating selling experience. The book ate up way too much of my time that I should have been spending on marketing Paperight books to university students.

Streamlined Paperight Product Catalogue

paperight_streamlined-catalogue_cover_20131104In November of 2013, we launched our beautiful streamlined Paperight product catalogue (PDF). Having worked with the previous catalogue as an intern which is a long, impenetrable list, I was adamant that we should upgrade it as soon as humanly possible.

The upgraded catalogue required fewer products and lots of colours and images to hook potential customers. One of the experiences that book buyers particularly enjoy is the sensation of browsing and this was meant to be a way of giving Paperight customers that experience.

Oscar and I worked on the list of content that would fit into the following broad, browsing categories:

  • matric exam packs
  • high school
  • young adult reading
  • teen reading
  • textbooks
  • tertiary education
  • classic fiction
  • teaching aids
  • child teaching
  • african literature
  • religion & spirituality
  • childcare
  • self-help & reference

Nick and I worked together on the concept for the catalogue and the necessary design feature-y type things that would make the finished product really easy and enjoyable to dip into. In the end, Nick took everything we discussed and created an absolute masterpiece. Slick and eye-catching, there is no way that anyone wouldn’t be impressed by Paperight and the featured titles.

photo4 photo3

The catalogue was launched through the weekly newsletter and on the Paperight blog. Outlets were encouraged to contact us for personalised copies featuring their own logos, business addresses and contact details. We have continued to receive a regular number of requests from business owners for personalised copies and Nick has been able to keep up with the edits due to the simplicity of the catalogue’s design. In other words, his no frills design approach has made the final document simple and quick to edit.

The catalogue was designed to be relevant from November 2013 to April 2014 to ensure we would not have to design a new catalogue anytime soon. Based on the marketing plan, we knew that we would have very busy months ahead that would leave no time for a full catalogue overhaul. Any newer updates to content have been featured through the weekly newsletter and through the Paperight Facebook page.

Introducing the briefing system

By August 2013, I felt that our methods of creating materials was creating undue stress on me and, even worse, that they weren’t working particularly well. (Even though they probably were.) To make sure that materials would be created in an efficient manner and, more importantly, that they would be used by outlets once they had them, I devised a simple briefing system that everyone in the company had to use in full if they wanted me to make materials for them.

Each brief had to take five things into account for each piece of material required for any project:

  • What is its purpose? (e.g. to increase sales of a certain book(s), to increase sales at a certain outlet, to allow customers to easily browse products.) If a material has no real purpose behind its creation (“point of sales”, for example, is not a purpose), nothing will come of it, and it will be a waste of time. Its purpose will also inform other crucial parts of the material’s design.
  • What will it look like? What format will it take? How big will it be? Is it print or electronic? Is it in colour, or black-and-white? Where is it going to appear?
  • What details have to be on it? If it’s for an outlet, for example, what details for the outlet need to be on it (address, e-mail, phone number, etc.) and what are those details? Is there a price list on it, and if so, what are the outlet’s prices? Does the material need another organisation’s logo on it, and if so, have you got that logo organised already?
  • How will you make sure this material will succeed in its purpose? How do we make sure the material is printed or distributed effectively? If it is left up to an outlet or other organisation to distribute it, then how to we make sure that it has been distributed?
  • What are the metrics by which this material will be judged to be successful? How will we judge that the production of this material is an effective use of company time, and on what time frame? Or, if you’d like to use Shuttleworth Foundation terminology, what do you expect to see from the production of this material, what would you like to see, and what would you love to see?

I hoped that if we were to consider all of these aspects before we produced materials, we would cut down on unnecessary revisions to materials and the production of unnecessary materials – in short, time-wasting.

So effective was the briefing system that I managed to get through the amount of work that I would ordinarily do in five days, in three days.

Happily, it worked. Marie and I were able to more efficiently get through our work, and it avoided a large amount of unnecessary work for the both of us. So effective was the briefing system that I managed to get through the amount of work that I would ordinarily do in five days, in three days.

It also forced us to think about marketing campaigns in a more nuanced and planned manner – instead of starting a campaign and producing materials ad hoc for it, as we usually tended to do, we would work out exactly what we needed to produce before we started the campaign, and figure out the most efficient ways for us to produce and personalise them, if needed. It meant that, when we embarked on our matric exam paper campaigns and, later, the #textbookrevolution campaign, we could spend as much time following up and doing new things in response to new developments in the campaign as we needed to, without the hassle of having to revisit messaging or price lists or product lists, etc., as we had to do in the past.

Lessons learned from distributed in-store advertising

We discovered soon after we began to create outlet- and product-specific posters and send them out via our newsletter that they made a difference to sales. In fact, a survey done by Yazeed at one point showed that outlets that advertised with posters had more success than others. (This, in retrospect, is incredibly obvious, but we thought people might have been driven to stores or to buy products by being encouraged to do so by… well, I’m not sure, actually.)

When Marie arrived in April 2013, it freed me up to do more material design work. Marie set about calling outlets to find out more about them and to make sure they were on board with our system. We made sure that, when she called an outlet, she asked if they wanted any materials made for them for the upcoming matric exam season. As part of our offering, we would design posters and flyers. These materials included price lists on them for up to 50 of our matric products, which we could change for every outlet that wanted them. There was sound reasoning behind this, initially: we assumed that, if we did the heavy lifting for outlets and gave them something specific to them and ready-made for them, they would take to using materials with more enthusiasm, and would get some outlets that didn’t have design capabilities to be able to engage with and to advertise Paperight better.

This was a pretty disastrous idea, for a number of reasons:

  1. The amount of requests for materials that we got was overwhelming, and we only had one designer: me, who had many other responsibilities to take care of.
  2. Outlets sometimes weren’t even too sure of their own pricing structures, or would arbitrarily change things, and so would ask us to make multiple revisions to the same materials because they couldn’t be bothered to tell us what their prices were and, even if they did, tended not to stick to them.
  3. Manually changing 50 or so prices for every flyer and poster, and copy-pasting logos and contact details, was mindnumbing and uncreative work. I felt like I missed a month of my life around July, as every day was the same task, in a sense.
  4. Outlets didn’t buy into the materials as much as we hoped. Some never printed them, effectively making the work a waste of time.

These problems piled the misery on me, with the result that I entered into quite a deep slump for a few weeks. I began to resent my work and what I was doing and, even worse, the people I was supplying materials for. The work was repetitive and seemed to have little effect on sales and/or engagement with products with outlet owners. I realised that something drastic had to change.

Facebook advertising push

We used our Facebook and Twitter feeds in a rather precise, but extremely underutilised fashion until midway through 2013. Until then, we had usually usually only made posts to accompany posts made on the blog, or to spread the word about prizes or nice media mentions that we had received. As such, we didn’t particularly place much importance on Facebook and Twitter as media in themselves, perhaps due to a belief that the bulk of the customers who we thought would be most interested in and would use Paperight weren’t super active on social media.

This, of course, was a mistake that we realised a bit too late – to survive, Paperight obviously had to appeal to social media users, too.

I had dabbled with creating conversation plans before Marie, our marketing manager, arrived at Paperight, but the ones I made either were too clunky, unimaginative, or just simply didn’t come together well because I was too busy creating designs for physical materials. There was too much for me to do otherwise, in other words. Press releases, for example, were perceived to be a much more important way for us to gain visibility, although we had no definite sales metrics to support the assumption that press releases created sustained consumer interest in Paperight.

We began to run Facebook conversation plans in July 2013, around the time of the launch of the Paperight Young Writers’ Anthology. We paired excerpts from published work with related advertisements or visual accompaniments, and tagging the contributors who were featured in the images in the posts themselves. This resulted in more shares from the contributors and their parents and friends. We also started spending modest sums of money on advertising on Facebook, targeting potential readers of the Anthology. The combination of advertising and a conversation plan, in which engaging content was scheduled every weekday, increased our Facebook Likes at a much quicker rate than we had achieved before.

The added engagement on our Page opened us up to the potential of advertising on Facebook – with the caveat that, although our imagined customers weren’t all on Facebook, it didn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to engage with those of them that were. It also meant a slight change in messaging: although we had mostly pushed the accessibility angle in our press releases, we began to push the price and convenience angle, especially with regard to matric exam packs and study guides, which were much cheaper from most Paperight outlets than they were from bookstores.

This greatly informed our approach to our campaigns for the rest of the year, which focused on the comparative cheapness of Paperight materials compared to their bookstore equivalents. We pushed this aspect hard with the products we featured for the rest of the year – which were mostly exam study guides for the matric season, and cheap fiction and self-help titles to augment and diversify the product mix. Advertising around this time focused on parents of matrics and matrics themselves, with messaging focused on helping learners to get fully prepared for their exams with our exam packs and other materials. These campaigns had a good reaction, but we also found that they were fully season-dependent. After the first couple of weeks of exams had finished, engagement took a sharp turn down.

We found, overall, that without advertising, Facebook posting was very unlikely to engage with many, never mind most, of our fans. Even with advertising, I can say anecdotally that it was mostly the same group of people who liked multiple posts, giving us the illusion of engaging a lot with our fan base, but, in reality, it wasn’t really the case. Facebook is an incredibly nuanced tool; easy to dabble in, difficult to master.

Varsity advertising tinkering at Aloe X

no-to-high-book-prices_a1_20130200Having studied in Grahamstown, I wanted to make a Paperight outlet thrive there. The conditions were perfect: Grahamstown is a small, relatively low-income university town. Money is low, and demand for books is high. In 2012, I made contact with Aloe X, the closest copy shop to Rhodes University, after the university themselves showed no real interest in adopting a pilot Paperight project of their own.

I made contact with Aloe X the day after I travelled to Peddie for a research trip in May 2012. I handed them a business card, spoke to the manager Aletta, and reassured her that it was a free service.

Despite good intentions, we only really started getting involved with Aloe X at the end of 2012, in preparation for the beginning of the 2013 academic year. I figured out a strategy whereby we would collect the set lists of books from the English literature and Classics departments, figure out which ones we had on the system, and then make posters and flyer designs to stick up at Aloe X and around Rhodes campus.

At this point we found out that Aloe X had almost been closed down due to a spate of textbook piracy that ended in a visit from the police. Essentially, students would bring in books, the staff (without the owner’s or manager’s knowledge) would scan them and keep the files on their computer. Students could then get their textbooks printed immediately for R50–R100. Almost exactly the same as Paperight – but, you know, super illegal.

The copy on our advertising, until then, had been quite tame. Seldom did we have provocative taglines that foregrounded the bad aspects of traditional bookselling, lest we upset potential partners. For this campaign we went with “Say NO to high textbook prices” and variants thereof. The campaign was successful in some ways and not so much in others. The idea and the tagline attracted a lot of attention – the shop had a dozen or so enquiries a day at the beginning of term. We seldom had the books they needed, however.

We showed that there was a demand for cheaper textbooks and that students were interested, with minimal advertising and involvement. We just needed the books.

Since then, as our library has gotten bigger, Aloe X has been one of our stronger outlets – no doubt because of the fact that the town only has one academic bookstore, which, as academic bookstores do, charge extortionate prices.

Nick becomes Head of Communications, and the start of PR

I stayed on at Paperight after the end of my two-month internship, which surprised me as I wasn’t expecting to prove myself indispensable. Initially, we weren’t too sure what my title would be. We bandied around “Resident Storyteller”, “PR Head” and other things, until one day, on the phone to the Cape Argus, I improvised that I was the “Head of Communications”. That stuck, and so my job profile was built around that. My functional authority for this time, from May 2012 until roughly August 2013 was to:

  • Plan and execute external communications strategies
  • Create design and copy that sets us apart
  • Build our archive of media assets

My functional authority was rather easy to fulfill for the first few months. My weekly routine included designing a poster, completing a few blog posts and trying to put together a media list. I found I wasn’t terribly good or tenacious at putting together a media list, so it came in good time when Arthur delivered a talk at TEDxCapeTown and got the attention of a PR agency, Atmosphere, who wanted to work with us.

We went to a meeting in their plush offices at King James in Woodstock, and although it was a fruitful meeting, we simply didn’t have the budget to work with them. They recommended that we get in touch with Nicole Sochen, the founder of al dente PR, who would be more in line with our budget.

At about the same time we were invited to attend the second round of the SAB Innovation Awards. As Arthur’s wife Michelle was due to deliver their child at the same time as the SAB workshop and adjudication in Kyalami, I traveled by myself to attend. There was some stiff competition. Luckily, Arthur managed to come up for the last day and aided me with the presentation to the judges. We, unfortunately, did not make it to the final six, but we were informed in November that we had won a seed grant of R100 000. We finally had the money to put together, we thought, a sustainable PR strategy.

Things we’ve shipped recently

In the last three months we’ve got a few concrete things out the door.

I’ve also been getting around to spread the word.

A bunch of people are joining our thinking:

And on my personal blog, a few Paperight-related pieces: