Rathna is an international graphic design practitioner and researcher known for her expertise in intercultural communication design and typography, and non-mainstream and experimental publishing practices.
Rathna received her PhD from the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading. She has an MA in Communication Design from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and a BA in Fine Art from the University of Madras.
Rathna became the Head of Programme for Visual Communication in January 2015, before taking up the post of Dean of the RCA's School of Communication from 2018 until December 2020. Immediately prior to joining the Royal College of Art, she was senior lecturer on the Graphic Communication Design Programme at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where she taught across undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and supervised PhD students in areas including cross-cultural design, book design, design for change, graphic design, exhibition design and typography (Latin and Non Latin).
Dr Ramanathan is a children’s book author; she works in collaboration with writers to create graphic picture books for adults and children. Titles have included In the Land of Punctuation (2014) and Anything but a Grabooberry (2003), both published by Tara Books.
Rathna has over twenty years’ work experience in diverse contexts: professional (undergraduate and postgraduate design education, design practice, design research), cultural (South Asian, European, North American), and organisational (commercial, academic, nonprofit). She began her career as a junior designer position at Ogilvy (India), before leaving employment within a year to start her own studio — Minus9Design — at the age of 21. Through her design studio, she has worked as a consultant to organisations in India, Singapore, Malaysia, the UK and US.
The studio has received commissions from clients, including BBC World Service, UNICEF, World Bank, Harvard University Press and Tara Books, for book design, cross-cultural communication design and illustrative typography. Notably, Rathna‘s work in 2004 with BBC World Service helped the organisation connect with new rural audiences in India. She also advises Adobe on the design of Indic typefaces and is one of the design leads behind the critically acclaimed Murty Classical Library of India.
Rathna publishes and exhibits her work regularly. Recent events include exhibitions and public talks at the Tara Educational Research Society, UCL Urban Lab, Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, Chelsea College of Art & Design, St Bride Library and Falmouth University, as well as papers at the Design History Society Conference and Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI). She has co-curated exhibitions related to Indic typography and design, including Non Latin Typefaces (with Dr Fiona Ross) and 6,000,000 impressions: handcrafting the book experience (with Gita Wolf).
Her practice and research interests are primarily in the areas of graphic design, Non Latin and Latin typography, intercultural visual communication, design for book publishing (print & digital), graphic design for developing countries and South Asian graphic design history. She disseminates her practice widely by mean of academic writing, conferences and exhibition outputs, as well as workshops and events.
Publications, exhibitions, other outcomes
Ramanathan, R. (2013) ‘Folk author: Collaborations between folk artist and publisher. A Tara Books case study’, Journal of Illustration, 1 (1). 123–49. ISSN 2052-0204
Ramanathan, R. (2011) Dear Google: Print Matters, London: AND Publishing. ISBN 9781907840012
Ramanathan, R., Vogelsang, A. and Hollings, K. (2008) ‘Changing perspectives: the relationship between research, writing and visual practice in MA Design education’, in: Focused: Current Design Research Methods and Projects. ISBN: 978-3-9523130-0-0
Ramanathan, R. [co-author] (2014) In the Land of Punctuation, India: Tara Books. ISBN 8190754602
Ramanathan, R. (2013) ‘The Making of a Book by Hand', POOL, May 2013, vol. 35
Ramanathan, R. (2012) ‘An Indian Typography’, Kyoorius, vol. 12
Ramanathan, R. (2012) ‘Independent India: Publishing and The Form of the Book in India', Typo, Autumn 2012, vol. 49
Ramanathan, R. (2009) ‘Conversations with the Themersons’, Ultrabold, Summer 2009
Ramanathan, R. (2013) ‘We two, ours two: towards building an Indian graphic design history’, Towards Global Histories of Design: Postcolonial Perspectives, Design History Society Annual Conference, 5–8 September, Ahmedabad, India
Ramanathan, R. (2012) ‘Picturing words: expressive typography and story-telling in picture books’, Typography Day, 2–3 March, Mumbai, India
Ramanathan, R. and Gruendler, S. (2011) ‘Design Pluralism: a call for radical shifts in the teaching of typography’, TypoBerlin Shift 2011, Berlin, Germany
Ramanathan, R. (2011) ‘Nakka Mukka: expressive forms in Tamil typography’, Typography Day, 3–5 March, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India
Selected Talks, Keynotes and Panels:
Ramanathan, R. (2014) ‘Picturing Words: Typography as Illustration', invited talk for Tara Educational Research Society, Book Building, Chennai, India
Ramanathan, R. (2014) ‘Ekalavya's Burden: Culture, Context and Copyright in Academic Publishing', invited talk for Future Univercities, UCL Urban Lab, London
Ramanathan, R. (2012) ‘Contemporary Indian Design, Culture & Society’, invited panel member, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Ramanathan, R. (2012) ‘Lost in Translation?: Culture and Graphic Communication Design’, invited talk, Chelsea College of Art & Design, London
Ramanathan, R. (2009) ‘Short run! Experimental book design & London’s little presses (1945–1979)’, keynote, St Bride Library, London
Ramanathan, R. (2008) ‘Communicating with India’s rural Heartland’, invited talk at the Eye Magazine Ethics in the Creative Industries Forum, held at Camberwell College of Arts, London
Exhibited, Lettering, Objects, Examples, Practice, Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, curated by Professor Phil Baines
Exhibited, with writer Ken Hollings, Embedded Art, group exhibition, Akademie der Kunste, Berlin, Germany
Curator, Short run! Experimental book design & London’s little presses, exhibition held at St Bride Library, London
Current and recent projects
Murty Classical Library of India
Many important classical texts in Indian literature have never reached a global audience; others are becoming unavailable even to Indian readers. This strategic design project was commissioned by the Murty Classical Library, with the aim of creating an accessible classical library to make modern translations of important Indian texts available in print and online. Funded by a trust set up by the Indian industrialist Rohan Murty and overseen by Harvard University Press, Dr Ramanathan set out to create a framework for the design of the printed book interiors, digital texts and Indic typography for jacket designs.
Ramanathan developed a series of ‘Archive’ publications as a method of sharing the research with the Murty/Harvard team of senior editors, translators, and the design and production team. These publications embed references to original Indic manuscripts alongside proposals for the visual identity and interface of future publications.
Ramanathan is primary author and editor with two research assistants. Research was based on key subject areas: history of the book and printing in India; language and scripts of India; reading and reader interactions with texts, and bilingual translations employing multi-script typography.
The typesetting and design of bilingual Indic texts of such range and complexity is unprecedented in modern book design practice and poses many challenges that were addressed through three lines of enquiry. First, to establish a systematic bilingual book design for English translations of texts in ten different Indian languages and scripts grouped into four categories: North Brahmic (Sanskrit, Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali), South Brahmic (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada), Perso-Arabic (Urdu) and Prakrit (Pali). Second, to accommodate two genres in the template design: poetry and prose. Third, as Indian texts do not use italics or bold, it was imperative to establish an Indic hierarchy and grammar through the application of typographic rules.
This is an ongoing project with outcomes planned for the next decade.
Picturing Words: Typography as Illustration
As part of a larger initiative, Dr Ramanathan was commissioned by Tara Books to design this work as a contemporary illustrated response to an English translation of German poet Christian Morgenstern’s text. The poem, written in 1905, is set in a world inhabited by punctuation marks where war is declared upon the semicolons. A story of conflict and oppression, it is an eerie foretelling of the violence that would follow in Europe over the next decades. Most English translations of Morgenstern’s work are out of print, available only in German, and the poem remains mostly unknown to contemporary readers of English. There are no recent editions of Morgenstern's work, making this typographically illustrated version a unique interpretation of his work.
Drawing upon research into ‘type play’ as illustration in early twentieth-century graphics, Ramanathan’s book envisions the text as a modern, contemporary conflict with visual allusions to technology, machinery and war. The decision to illustrate the book typographically was a direct response to Morgenstern’s use of word as metaphor in describing acts of war and oppression.
While much ‘typography as illustration’ tends towards the playful, Ramanathan took a more serious approach to the subject matter. Design development explored the challenges of employing typography as sign, mark and image. The illustration aims for a universal relevance where language, design and politics intersect through the deployment of a dual approach to translation: German to English and linguistic to typographic. The book is read in layers, with recurring identifiable themes in which pages hint at landmark visual events. For example, the typographic structure of the cover recalls the photograph of Hitler speaking to the masses against the backdrop of the Third Reich’s flag.
This is an ongoing project that intends to explore the conceptual nature and materiality of visible language through world languages.
AHRC Connected Communities Programme: Early Career Researcher Funded Workshop
Harvard University Press: Murty Classical Library Research & Design
Rathna’s research has two main strands. The first stems from an interest in intercultural communication design, particularly between Asia and Europe. In the past ten years, she has worked with organisations that prioritise engagement with communities with different cultural heritages. Underlying themes include an interest in Non Latin typography, the use of vernacular media in mass visual communications and cultural concepts of copyright and piracy.
The second revolves around independent publishing, experimental book design and print production. Her PhD focused on the book design and production practices of London-based ‘little presses’ (1945–1979). In her design practice, she works with independent publishers who use innovative and experimental methods of production, and seek to challenge the conventional form of the book.