This SA developer quit his job to fold origami, and landed deals with Dior, RedBull, and Pixar – Business Insider South Africa

10 Apr
Ross Symons was working as a web developer at a Cape Town advertising agency when he experienced “an undercurrent of having to go to a place to do work”.
“The work was fine, but I was getting told what to do — and that’s always bugged me. I felt like I had good ideas and something to give, but every time I tried to share them, the boss or the more creative person would always step in, and it would go through without real acknowledgement of my input,” says Symons.
In 2013, with dreams of quitting and starting his own business, but still very much locked into corporate life, he opened an Instagram account called White on Rice, where he began posting pictures of origami art he was creating in his spare time. 
At first, he only knew how to fold a fairly classic origami animal, the crane. But as he spent time honing his hobby and delving deep into the online world of origami, his passion and skill grew.
Inspired by miniaturist Lorraine Loots, Symons then decided to fold one origami animal and post it on Instagram for every day of 2014 — simply as a hobby and motivation to get better at his passion while hoping to grow a bigger social media following.
At roughly the same time, Symons decided to quit his job and took up freelancing in the advertising world — which is when he first realised the financial potential of his growing reputation as an origami artist.
“I was hot-desking at an agency that had a client who owned a bacon bar. The person I was sitting with at the time knew I folded animals in my spare time and pitched the idea of an origami pig curtain. He based the pitch on me creating 250 origami pigs for the installation,” Symons says.
Although intimidated by designing an original animal for a brand and then replicating it 250 times, Symons accepted the bacon bar job, got paid for it, and realised that there were companies that would actually pay for folded paper animals. 
A chance meeting with Switzerland-based South African “origami rockstar” Sipho Mabona, and a home page feature of his work by Instagram a few months later, was the kick Symons needed to leave the freelance world and pursue a business of creating origami art for brands. The demand and budget available for his work amazed him, and despite “common entrepreneurial issues” around motivation and not giving up, he succeeded in turning White on Rice into a viable business.
The first real indication of this came days before he finished his first 365-day project on Instagram, when he received an email from French fashion giant Christian Dior requesting a quote for a bespoke origami piece — his first high-profile origami gig.
“I was stunned, they wanted two little content pieces for Twitter or Instagram and asked me to quote them on it in euros,” says Symons. “They paid me more for that job than what I would have made in two months as a developer.”
In the year that followed, Symons dutifully completed another 365 days of origami on Instagram, and as his social media following grew, so too did his corporate portfolio. Global brands like Samsung, Red Bull, ADIDAS, McDonald’s, Sony, KLM, Playstation, Pixar, Nordstrom, and Spar all reached out for custom creations, and he’s since completed more than 65 similar corporate projects.
Earlier this year, he also signed a deal with banking and wealth management group Investec, who asked him to fold their iconic zebra mascot for their sponsorship of the Cape Town Art Fair.
“Working with Investec was a particularly great project. Investec needed an artist to create content and help with the design of the stand at the fair. I got to design their zebra in origami, create an animation, and do an origami installation,” Symons says.
“The work I do is tedious and requires a lot of patience and precision. People appreciate the art of what I am able to create under those conditions. There is a ‘technical meets creativity’ element too that I think many people find interesting,” says Symons.
Symons isn’t exaggerating when he says his work takes time. He’s recently spent three months designing an origami tiger that’s still not entirely done. And in 2016, together with a team, he folded 1,600 origami butterflies for cider brand Strongbow.
The move away from the corporate world and into origami continues to pay off, more than eight years down the line. Symons says his inside track to the advertising world helped, as has his social media following spurred on by his 365-day projects at the start of the venture.
“I have always been approached by brands and agencies directly. Because of my social media presence and the uniqueness of my work, brands often see what I do and come up with their own ideas as to how they can work with me. So most of my work is organically generated,” he says.
A post shared by White on Rice (@white_onrice)
Symons has since started a spin-off business of an animation studio with his wife called New Sugar Studios. And last year, he secured his biggest client deal when a brand paid him half a million rand to create ten original origami animations.
Even so, the success of White on Rice has taken him by surprise.
“I did not expect this to happen at all, and I am truly grateful that I get to create original work and people enjoy it for what it is,” Symons says. 
“I remember sometimes when I was working a nine-to-five job I’d get home at two or three in the morning because we had to get a website live. I hated that. Now, if I have to complete an urgent project and work late, I’m not sitting there hating my life — I’m loving it!”

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