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“Designers have the responsibility to think beyond the creation and shaping of content”: Rathna Ramanathan on her new role at the RCA

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Photo by Richard Haughton

With last week’s announcement of Dr. Rathna Ramanathan as Dean of the School of Communication, we spoke with the designer, researcher, writer and educator about what it means to be at the helm of a design school today.

It’s Nice That: How will your experience as Head of Programme for MA Visual Communication inform your work as Dean of the School?

Rathna Ramanathan: In my time as Head of Programme, the Royal College of Art has proven to be a tight, welcoming and diverse community of ambitious and talented people; who genuinely (and rightly) believe that creative practice can transform the world. Who we are and where we’re from is our strength as creative practitioners, or what we call our “critical position”. In the past three years, difficult global political changes have called our role into question: What impact can we have, what changes can we make that make a genuine difference, no matter how small? This question, and the context our students are coming from and living, is what anchors our reality.

I’ve had a lot of fun working collaboratively with both students and tutors, and leading on some important curricular changes in the Visual Communication programme, which is the largest in our school. I’m looking forward to taking that a step further; working with colleagues and students from other programmes in the School, such as Animation, Digital Direction and Information Experience Design.

INT: In your statement on the new role, you talk about decolonising the curriculum, could you elaborate on what that means?

RR: The word “decolonising” is important to me for various reasons. I am Indian, and I come from what was once a colonised country. I work in the UK. I’ve greatly benefited from doing my postgraduate studies in the UK – at Central Saint Martins and the University of Reading – and have worked with clients such as the BBC on roadshows in rural India. This has all helped me understand the value I bring to higher education and creative practice here, and the value I get from a British education and from being a tutor.

For me, decolonising the curriculum means all of these things: understanding that education is of ‘mutual benefit’ to both tutors and students; that all cultures, backgrounds and identities should be of equal value to each other; that if we are to transform the world through creative practice, this cannot be achieved using a singular point of reference. When we embrace different ways of looking at the world, we’re empowered and able to understand and translate different ways of describing the world through creative practice.

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Students on the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art. Photo by Richard Haughton

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Students on the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art. Photo by Pamela Dimitrov

INT: What would you say the role of communication designers is (or what is it becoming) in the contemporary socio-political landscape?

RR: I think we need to reframe the narrative of communication. We need to reboot our system and reconsider what our role is, which is not just the creation and shaping of content, but the consideration and understanding of networks – how what we do is published, received, manipulated, distributed, shared etc…

Our industry has often been led by buying power and less about critical societal challenges, but I believe that the creative industries have so much more to offer. We need to recover and rediscover our ways of thinking and making and remind ourselves of our purpose. Education has a big part to play in this reframing. We need new directions, and new ways of telling stories about the world – forms that are collaborative beyond our discipline, which resonate with a range of audiences and disciplines, and harness/repurpose often banal modes of communication. If we consider our work in this larger context, then we certainly can create ‘change through making’ as noted by Jack Schulze and Timo Arnall. A good recent example of this is how Whatsapp changed its policy about how people can share and forward content. This was spurred on by issues with false news in India.

INT: In your statement, you mention situating communication within the “frames of culture, community, consciousness, commercialism and creativity”, a lot of these terms sit comfortably together, but there is also some areas of potential conflicts or contradiction – which equally come up in professional life – how do you negotiate that?

RR: Conflict and contradiction is the basis for the best of creative practice. It is thinking outside of how we normally think that provides the most memorable moments and the most transformative change. Let’s pay attention to that creative tension, because therein lies the truth of our purpose. I realise I am being purposefully vague here, because I’m not ready to tell all yet. Watch this space!