Deafness and design: A conversation with Ravi Vasavan, designer at Koto

A new project, Text Radio, sees writer and CR contributor Nick Asbury interview designers and creatives live via text on a Google Doc. His most recent conversation was with Koto senior designer Ravi Vasavan. An extract is featured here

This interview took place in live written form on a shared Google Doc, as part of a project called Text Radio. These are edited excerpts.

Nick: Hi Ravi. We often end up talking on Text Radio about the medium itself, and the role that writing vs speech plays in people’s lives. You have a powerful perspective on that. Do you want to say more about what you think of this medium, and how it connects with the way you communicate generally?

Ravi: Yes, the format has a smack of familiarity for me, because it’s how I communicated with many hearing people growing up. From pen and paper to dingy old Nokia phones, onto iPhone and so on.

As a deaf family, we had a TTY – a Teletype Writer – a technology that connects to a normal phone set, and has a relay service person who writes the text out to us, and we write back. That was my first exposure to chatting in text format.

I still remember when mobile phones came out and how powerful that was. It became an individual thing. I got my own phone and was able to write into it and hand it over to friends or strangers for them to respond.

Nick: It’s interesting how technology is changing communication – and specifically writing. At the moment, it feels like the distance between writing and speech is being narrowed – there is pretty good software for transcribing speech instantly (so a podcast can be made available as a transcription). And writing can quickly be transformed into speech. What’s your perspective on this? Do you feel like things are changing positively, or is the world still pretty slow to accommodate deaf culture?

Ravi: Yes, it definitely feels like the distance between writing and speech is being narrowed with new technologies, including AI transcription. It’s become more common to use speech-to-writing apps because they are increasingly accurate. But the biggest issue is that it’s still not a 1:1 representation of any conversation. A lot of nuances are lost in transcripts, unless they are edited by a human or the host themselves. I always wonder what I may be missing out on.

Podcasts have been been a thorn in my side because I work in an industry that has a lot of interesting minds and content to dig into. But in the last few years most of it has shifted from blogs and magazines to podcasts – which means there’s a lot of content I’m unable to access. There’s a price to auto-transcribing too – around a dollar a minute – so it takes some advocating (and hassling) to get a transcription.

With design conferences, it’s easier as I can email months ahead of time to organise the hiring of interpreters and so on. I’ve been to a few and found it easier because it’s physical. Everyone is there in person – there’s a sense of accountability tied to that.

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Nick: You recently launched this project called Can you explain the thinking behind it?

Ravi: Yes, it came out of a few conversations with Christine Sun Kim, a great artist and thinker, and a friend of mine. Deaf as well, so there’s that. It was partly influenced by the Equality Symbol project by Able Parris.

Christine and I got talking about this sign <0/ which has has been in use in deaf culture for many years – in written form and a mish-mash of drawn or designed graphics. We thought we should give it a proper home: a place to educate people and share the rich history of deaf culture, communities and languages. We hope to extend it into a platform for people to share their own stories.

Nick: Do you have any advice for agencies on how to work with deaf people, and how to show consideration to it more generally, in terms of what they create for other people?

Ravi: It’s important to acknowledge that you’re willing to work with them, and that their deafness doesn’t impact them in a negative way. I got that with James, one of the co-founders at Koto. There was no hesitation in working with me – it was always about my skill and portfolio, not my deafness.

In terms of communicating day-to-day, please put in the effort to learn the basics of sign language. You don’t have to be fluent to be able to communicate. Otherwise, use any technology at your disposal to make sure you bond. It’s always appreciated, even when not voiced out loud.

Process-wise, be open to changing how the studio operates in terms of meetings and creative catch-ups. Splitting between the physical and digital really helps. Anyone reading this, I’m always happy to chat with you – look me up on Twitter.

Finally, give people the space and opportunity to ‘come out’, as Koto did with me. It took me a while to figure out whether I should leverage my deafness in ways that I initially had doubts about. I feel like I’m on a new path towards some form of advocacy and being a spokesperson (he-he) for my community. Especially back home in Australia. That’s definitely something I am going to continue focusing on, to explore where it takes me.

Nick: Well, you’re an articulate and thoughtful ‘spokesperson’ for deafness, so if you do continue down that path, I’m sure lots of us will be watching with interest. Any closing thoughts?

Ravi: I actually want to share an anecdote about using the written format as a way to converse with people. Eight years ago, I met my current partner that way. I wrote a really cheesy line about what music was being played in this bar … and sort of shoved my phone through a circle of dancing friends across to her.

Ultimately, I have maybe 1,000 notes between us both, tracking back to that first conversation.

Talking here made me think about how there are millions of notes out there between deaf and hearing people. I know all my family and friends use this format. Is there a book in that? Maybe.

Text Radio is a series of live written conversations hosted in Google Docs by Nick Asbury. See for more episodes; Text Radio identity (top) by Studio Sutherland