Graphic design for the Indian context

Ragini Siruguri is a graphic designer at Tara Books. This interview was originally recorded as an interview, in collaboration with Angie from Design Lota. This post has been edited for brevity.

Angie: Hi Ragini! Let’s talk about your creative journey so far.

Ragini: I grew up surrounded by books and art as a child. I used to read a lot; my parents and grandparents always gave me a book for my birthday every year and I was constantly doing something or the other with paints and paper and this and that.

Also, both my parents are editors and they work closely with information design and books. While I was growing up, there would always be conversations about things like design, offset printing, bookmaking and CMYK colours… Sometimes, on the way back from school, my mother would say, “Hey, let’s just stop by the printer and pick up some proofs.”. So I grew up hearing all these technical terms and was introduced to software like Photoshop and InDesign at a very young age. Most of what I am today, I owe to my parents, in a way.

Angie: You mentioned earlier about Indian art. What kind of research do you have to do as a designer in terms of trying to understand some of the elements that you could use in the book itself?

Ragini: Oh yes! But let me tell you a bit about Tara first.

Tara Books is an independent publishing house and a collective of artists, writers and designers, based out of Chennai. Tara works very closely with indigenous art and storytelling traditions in India, and publishes books based on the visual arts for both children and adults. They’ve been around for 25 years now and have specialised in creating screen-printed books. They have also set up a screen-printing workshop, which is also in Chennai, where everything is done by hand, including the binding of books. Design plays a very central role in bookmaking here; exploring the form of the book is something that Tara has come to be known for. It is essentially as much a design and print studio as it is a publishing house.

Tara Books has 6-month long design and art residencies, and that’s actually how I came to work here. There was a call for designers, on Facebook, and one of my friends sent it to me – I will be forever grateful to her for this!

My mother used to buy a lot of Tara’s books when we were growing up, so I knew their books as a young reader. It was only during my last year at design school that I had begun to appreciate these books from a design point of view. So when I heard about the design residency, I said, “Okay, why not? I have nothing to lose, really, so let’s just take this 6-month detour to Chennai. It will be a fun stint.” But the funny thing is, those six months kept multiplying because I’ve been here for over three years now!

Angie: So the residency never got over!

Ragini: Still going on! There was another amusing thing that happened when I joined Tara. In 1998, they had published a book called Puppets Unlimited an activity book for children about how to make puppets out of ordinary materials.

When I was 11 years old, I’d bought this book for my mother, as a birthday gift. 12 years later, when I joined Tara in 2016, the redesign of that very same book was my first project. So this book and I have been on quite a long journey!

Tara Books is a very, very inspiring place to work at and it’s a privilege to be part of the team. Everyone here is just so experienced and sometimes it feels unreal that I work here!

Puppets Unlimited with Everyday Materials, Tara Books, 1998 (First edition, left) and 2019 (Second edition, right)

Angie: Do you want to talk a little bit about those early months when you started working and how you started picking up stuff?

Ragini: I think one thing that you immediately notice about Tara’s books is how much attention is paid to design. As a designer, I feel very valued when I’m working on a certain book. The whole bookmaking process is collaborative. And since it’s design-centric, the designer is often involved from a very conceptual stage.

It’s also never a linear process – it’s not like the author writes a piece of text and then there are illustrations and then the project comes to the designer. And it’s interesting to see how much your design decisions influence the final form of the book. A book can be drastically different just by involving the designer and printer at a much earlier stage.

Angie: You mentioned earlier about Indian art. What kind of research do you have to do as a designer in terms of trying to understand some of the elements that you could use in the book itself?

Ragini: I think for me, what is exciting is discovering and learning about the diversity in all these traditional forms of art. There are so many art and storytelling traditions in India and many of them inherently have graphic design as part of their practice.

Take the Patua community of artists from West Bengal; they paint long scrolls and go from village to village to tell stories through performance. They naturally have this knowledge of breaking up stories into panels on the scroll, which they slowly unroll as they perform. There’s a lot to learn from them just by observing how they make what they make.

Angie: It’s also interesting how you would select the kind of visual elements and the form of the book itself, that would support the kind of story that you want to tell.

Ragini: Exactly. There are some art forms that, say, have a very textural quality to them. To preserve this tactility, we might choose to make a screen-printed handmade book. On the other hand, another book may have a fascinating story. This is when the illustrations may play a secondary role. As a designer, you’re in charge of how you create meaning between these two elements – words and pictures. The balance keeps changing – between author, illustrator, designer and printer.

3-colour screen-printed sheets drying before being sent for binding • Photo: Ragini Siruguri / Tara Books

Angie: Tell us about one or two of your favourite book projects that you worked on, and what you enjoyed about the process.

Ragini: My current favourite project is a new title I worked on at Tara Books, called Origins of Art. The book is about a village in Madhya Pradesh called Patangarh, where the Gond art tradition is said to have been born. The book brings together two perspectives – one is of a well-known Gond artist called Bhajju Shyam. Tara Books has been working with him for several years now. The second narrative is that of a Japanese photographer called Kodai Matsuoka, who visited Patangarh and built a collection of fantastic photos of various aspects of the village – art, festivals, animals, houses, farming, people… The book is essentially a dialogue on Patangarh between the artist and photographer.

Origins of Art, Tara Books, 2019

Before I started designing this book, while reading the text and looking at the photographs, I realised that Gond art itself played a central role in the conversation that was being had. It felt necessary to intersperse the photos with actual illustrations by Gond artists. When I looked at some of the books featuring Gond art that Tara had published, it was quite serendipitous to see that some of the illustrations – of houses, animals or trees – that we already had in our books were very similar to photographs that Kodai had taken. The similarities were absolutely mind blowing – you could see exactly where these artists were getting their inspiration from!

Every day, I’d discover a new coincidence. And as a designer, what I had to do was to weave together a photograph, an illustration and an anecdote on each page. So every page felt like creating a new story, and I think that so far, this has been the book that I‘ve enjoyed working on the most at Tara.

Another book I loved doing – before joining Tara – was a collection of street photographs of Hyderabad. The book was actually conceptualised by my mother Sadhana Ramchander and the photographer Lakshmi Prabhala. The book is called HydandSeek.

When we were designing the cover, we realised that a lot of photo books had one single photograph on the cover, usually of a popular space or building in the city. And in the case of Hyderabad, it would be Charminar, the city’s most iconic monument. But we wanted to break that stereotype.

Lakshmi had taken this really nice photo of the view from atop the Charminar. We used this photo on the first page, and laser cut one of the jaali (grill) patterns from the Charminar onto the cover. So it is almost as if you are looking down at the city from up there, when you hold the book. On a practical note, it was an expensive option. But at the same time, it captured the essence of Hyderabad without being too obvious. The cover has received a lot of appreciation, so our decision was worth it.

HydandSeek, a visual tribute to Hyderabad, Bluepencil Infodesign, 2016 • Photos: Ragini Siruguri / Bluepencil Infodesign

Angie: When we look at your work and your photography, you use a lot of vibrant colours and interesting frames, right? What inspires you to capture that, and use it in your work as well?

Ragini: Ah, I can’t pinpoint a time when this started. The fascination for colours has always been there, ever since I can remember… It’s only recently that I’ve started documenting this.

I think studying graphic design and working as a designer has influenced the way I take pictures; I’ve been told that grids and alignment play a huge role in a lot of my photos! I am fascinated by geometry and how shapes and colour interact with each other. I love symmetrical frames, especially when you see them by accident on the streets. I’m sure this is because of the grid-based design projects that I’ve done!

Find more colour on Instagram!

As for the vibrant colour – living in Chennai has really helped build my Instagram feed, I have to say! You’re walking down a street and you suddenly see this building painted bright pink, combined with fluorescent green, and then the building behind it is a shocking purple!

Angie: I call them ice-cream or cake houses!

Ragini: Haha! When I first began noticing this, I started wondering how these decisions are made. Who are these people with this “fearless” sense of colour?!

Angie: Really cool! You’re also involved in a project called ‘Swatch Bharat’. What’s that all about?

Ragini: Swatch Bharat is a project that was created by a very good friend from college – Kawal Oberoi; he’s always up to some very cool stuff. On his website, Kawal says that this project was “born out of fear and frustration” – fear of how, as a culture, we are slowly losing out on the Indian aesthetic because it’s being very quickly replaced by a Western one. So already, if you notice, hand-painted signage is vanishing; hand-painted film posters have been long gone.

Swatch Bharat, an initiative by designer Kawal Oberoi

Kawal also talks about a lot of stereotypical images that are slotted as “Indian” – chai glasses, turbans and moustaches, elephants, the colour magenta… this same set of graphics is used over and over again.

Swatch Bharat is trying to document this inherent aesthetic and create a resource for designers to refer to. I think the kind of photos I take, especially the colour palettes, fit into this project well. So I was quite honoured to contribute to this collection!

Angie: It reminds me of a little assignment we had in design school, to go to a place and trying to get the palette of the place, by just being there and looking and observing. Over time you really see a pattern, and the displays have a distinct look in terms of colours, and probably, if we started looking at forms, we might see some patterns there as well.

Ragini: It’s a very interesting assignment to do as a designer. And I think you can find a lot of meanings and connections in it, especially to do with popular culture – the aesthetic of ordinary not-designer people! Two of my favourite books from Tara are on popular art and culture – there’s one book called Matchbook. It slides out like a matchbox. Have you seen it?! It talks about the artwork that you find on matchboxes in India. The other book is an old, out-of-print one, called An Ideal Boy – a collection of educational charts. Both books give a context to where these images came from and in what social and political setting they were made.

I worked on another book at Tara about the Mexican artist and revolutionary, Frida Kahlo – it’s called Frida Folk. The book is a collection of objects, souvenirs, memorabilia and photographs made by regular people – as opposed to professional artists – who were inspired by Frida Kahlo’s art and life.

Frida Folk, Tara Books, 2018 • Photos: Ragini Siruguri / Tara Books

Reading all these books has made me more interested in ‘visual culture’, a term I learned very recently; it’s not something I came across even at college. I had started asking myself all these questions – I’d go to the small kirana store down the road, and find this locally made product with a wonderful label on it, with unusual colours and vernacular scripts… I started collecting these labels – I think designers have a tendency to do these things.

I began to wonder why this person chose those two colours to put on the label? What kind of constraints did they have? Did they have a printing process that allowed them to print only two colours? Or were they given a “brief”? In design studios these days, there’s an important client who gives you a brief and then you have to make three options and pitch it to them… you know how it is!

Angie: And they pick the worst one!

Ragini: Yes, they do! So I kept wondering if it worked the same way with the design of these labels and sign boards. What influenced the designer’s decisions? Was there even someone called a “designer”?

Angie: Looking at your Instagram, it’s so full of interesting pictures and very carefully composed frames. You did mention that one of the people whose work inspires you is Wes Anderson. So, can you talk a little bit about what you find interesting about his work?

Ragini: I really admire his aesthetic. The way he composes his shots and the sort of minute attention he pays to details in every frame is fascinating.

Angie: Yeah! Each frame looks like it’s something you can just frame.

Ragini: Exactly! And it’s one thing to do that in a photograph, where it’s just you and the composition, but to do it in a film – that’s on some other level! I fully respect Wes Anderson for this and he is a huge inspiration, though subconscious.

Angie: I actually follow this Instagram account called Accidentally Wes Anderson…Have you seen it?

Ragini: Oh yes, I have!

Angie: I was reminded of that when I was looking at your work.

Ragini: That’s a great account, actually. It’s beautiful, the stuff they post. What is cool is that not all of them are artificially set-up compositions. Some of them are completely just found by accident.

Angie: Yeah, I think it’s user-submitted.

Ragini: That’s right! Every day, when you’re walking around, there’s a lot of aesthetic things around you. You just have to look for them. I think they’re just there, but nobody looks at them.

Angie: You also mentioned that you’re passionate about Design Education. What do you think is missing in design education today, and could be a great opportunity for mentors to probably focus on, or look to?

Ragini: In college, we had a very Western-centric curriculum; design histories, concepts and practices that we were taught were mostly based on ideas from the West. When I joined Tara Books, I began to learn about art and design in India, and I realised there was so much I didn’t know.

Working on projects here made me re-learn what it means to be a designer – there are many things under the surface that need to be taken into consideration. You’re not just making a 2D surface look pretty. It doesn’t end there.

There was this book I bought a couple of years ago called The Politics of Design. It’s by an Amsterdam-based designer called Ruben Pater. The book is a collection of visual examples that talk about how design is always created in a certain context from which it cannot be separated; it is always interconnected with the cultural, social and political context it is set in.

The first page of the book has this really nice but hard-hitting piece of text. It says: “You are privileged. Just reading this sentence makes you part of the 85% of the world population that is literate and the 20% that understands English. You’ve spent around €15 on this book, which is a price only 20% of people (those earning more than 10 dollars a day) can afford. If you are reading an electronic version you are among the 40%* who have access to the internet. If you bought this book, you probably have a higher education, which is only available to a privileged few…” (From The Politics of Design, by Ruben Pater.)

So you open the book, and this just hits you, and you start questioning your entire profession! I think every designer should read this book.

For example, one of the things the author talks about is the standard signage for parking – the letter ‘P’. It is based on the assumption that everyone recognises this squiggle as the letter ‘P’. But take a country like India, for example, where every few hundred kilometres, you have a different language, a different script, multiple interpretations of certain symbols, cultural associations to images… Would this parking sign still work?! Sometimes, when you design something and it fails to communicate effectively, it may be because it was based on incorrect assumptions.

I feel these are the things that needs to be talked about – how do you design for the Indian context, where there can be no single solution? It’s an exciting challenge for a designer, to find a solution to a problem, and design something that communicates well, despite all kinds of constraints.

This realisation for me happened when I was working with Two Design, a design studio based in Pune. We worked on an identity design project for an NGO called The Doctor Foundation. The project was an interesting learning experience for us because we realised that what a client might want is not always what the brand really needs, and that the end users are of most importance. This project became a case study on the many assumptions we tend to make while designing logos – especially for a multilingual audience. We documented our thought process in a comprehensive blogpost called Of Monograms and Logotypes.

A bilingual identity design for an NGO called The Doctor Foundation, in collaboration with TWO Design, Pune

Angie: Looking at it from the context that the client is talking about, as well as the bigger picture, and what the impact of that work is.

Ragini: Right. As designers, we have a certain responsibility and we don’t realise the intensity of it often. Going back to design education, I’m currently working on a project with ownpath. We are putting together a short introductory workshop on the Fundamentals of Visual Communication Design, slated for end of August. The idea is to introduce people to the basic concepts and principles that are involved in communication design, especially in the Indian context, and how design is interconnected with so many other things. I want to do this because it’s not something I was taught but I feel it’s something that needs to be talked about more.

Angie: Now we would like to sign off with some practical tips for students or things that you wish somebody would have told you when you started off your career.

Ragini: Reading was a big help to me. Just read everything you can find! Also, when you’re designing something, read about what you’re designing, read the content. Because, I feel, when you know the content and when you understand what you’re designing, then you design it much better. And please don’t use lorem ipsum, please!

Question things! Think about things apart from graphic design. Design is not something that happens on a surface level. Your actions are going to influence what the printer is going to do tomorrow with your work. So think about the printer first also.

What more can I say? I’m not wise enough!

Angie: Where can people find you online, and where do you put up your work?

Ragini: I’m still procrastinating about putting up my work online…! #feelingguilty But as of now, most of the books that I’ve designed with Tara Books are on their website: www.tarabooks.com. I write sometimes – check it out here. I’m most active on Instagram at @yellowchameleon – you can follow my everyday wanderings there.

Have comments or questions? Discuss.

Learn with Ragini

Ragini is facilitating a workshop on visual communication design!

Develop your design sensibilities and learn foundational principles through hands-on projects.

Learn more
Be in the know

We publish guides & interviews, organize events, courses, and programs to help you explore and learn design.

Can we keep you posted?