Remembering design professor emeritus Richard Branham, by alumnus David W. Hill

The University of Kansas School of Architecture & Design community is mourning the death of Richard Branham, pioneering designer and Professor Emeritus of Design, who passed away on February 19, 2020. During his 44-year tenure at KU, Professor Branham was known as a dynamic and dedicated teacher whose infectious enthusiasm for design, history, and intellectual inquiry helped chart the educational and career trajectories of so many students. One of these students was David W. Hill (BFA – Industrial Design ‘82), who went on to hold over 60 patents related to design and user experience, and win over 200 international design awards for projects that include the iconic IBM ThinkPad. The tribute below was penned by Mr. Hill the day after Professor Branham’s passing. 

Yesterday morning University of Kansas Design Professor Emeritus, Richard Branham, left this world succumbing to a rare and aggressive form of cancer. He was a brilliant designer and inspiring educator that instilled many important beliefs regarding design thinking in my own life’s work. The problem comes first. I can vividly remember many discussions centered around this simple but powerful credo. It’s impossible to design anything without first understanding what problem needed to be solved. 

  I first met Richard in 1978 where he was the Chairman of Art & Design at the University of Kansas. He was a dynamic individual full of stories, ideas and gumption. He taught all the design basic studies classes himself conducting inspirational lectures in Wescoe Hall auditorium to throngs of students who all wanted to be like him. I can still see him standing on stage wearing a microphone waving his arms brimming with enthusiasm, knowledge and heart. One of my favorite Branham quotes was “Tools change, thinking is where it’s at. We’re not going to teach you what a 2B pencil is, we’re going to teach you how to design!” What an important lesson. He was eagerly followed out of each lecture back to the Art & Design building by awestruck students. It was as though Richard was the Pied Piper of design. He was. 

Richard held a BFA and MFA from the University of Kansas as well as a MS from the Illinois Institute of Design. He had a lifelong thirst for knowledge related to design and design methods. Perhaps most importantly, Richard was not just an academic. He had significant professional experience. He worked in the areas of cognitive human factors, design strategy, design methods/techniques, wayfinding, interaction design and complex use models. Prior to joining the university, Branham founded the Information and Design Systems Division of Unimark International. It was one of the largest design firms in the world in the late 1960’s. Following the Unimark stint, he founded Design Planning Group in Chicago. Major clients have included Carlton Centre, Johannesburg, Gillette Company, Marshall Field, J. C. Penney, New York, Volkswagen, and Westinghouse. Kansas was lucky to have such a talent as a leader and faculty member. He was the real deal.   

I maintained a close relationship with Richard ever since we first met. He was a teacher, mentor, colleague and close friend. He hired me as a lecturer following my graduation, invited me to speak at the KU Hallmark Symposium, and nominated me to become a Distinguished Design Alumnus. We traded phone calls, books and design anecdotes for decades. Just last year he gave me his prized Braun SK 61 phonograph/radio. It’s one of the most significant design objects of the century. I was humbled. 

Richard inspired and educated generations of designers. He eagerly taught them to understand what design was and what it wasn’t. His view of design was as broad as the Kansas horizon. Anyone who ever studied under Richard has heard his famous “Design, is design, is design” mantra. Restated: there are no boundaries or limits to what a real designer can create. His impact on me as a professional designer is enormous. I’m eternally grateful for what he did for me. Today I’m sad about his passing, but also, I feel lucky to have known him. Godspeed my friend. 

--By David W. Hill, February 20, 2020