Profile: Mat Hunter

The role of chief design officer at the Design Council gives this 40-year-old Ideo veteran the chance to take practical action on issues he cares about. Lynda Relph-Knight talks to him about inspiration – and the influence of his big sister

It takes someone looking from the outside [to know what needs to be done],’ says Mat Hunter. Inadvertently making the case for consultancy, the Design Council’s 40-year-old chief design officer sums up his career to date – a journey that has taken several fortuitous turns, due in large part to the intervention of others.

Though he has played significant roles at international group Ideo since joining the San Francisco office in the mid-1990s, culminating in him heading interaction there and later at Ideo’s London office, he didn’t set out to be a designer.

But advice along the way, notably from his big sister Nat Hunter, co-founder of London consultancy Airside, has steered his course from 3D design to interaction and beyond.

Having studied science at A-level, Hunter was set to take an engineering degree, but the sight of laboratories when he visited Durham University changed that. ’I realised white coats don’t do it for me,’ he says. His sister intervened, suggesting design might suit him better.

A foundation course at Winchester led to a degree in industrial design at London’s Central St Martins College of Art & Design. But when he left in 1992, the UK was in recession and he ended up selling CAD software, using the computer skills he’d gleaned at college.

Within six months, though, he was at the Royal College of Art in London, where – again with his sister’s guidance – he studied an MA in computer-aided design under Gillian Crampton-Smith.

’It was very exciting to be in at the start of something,’ says Hunter, and the course opened doors. He presented for an internship with Apple, Microsoft, Ideo et al at the Computer Human Interface conference in Boston, Massachusetts, eventually joining Ideo in California as a result. Four-and-a-half years later he was leading interaction design there.

He came back to London in 1999, just before the dotcom bubble burst, when Colin Burns and Tim Brown were at Ideo, and was given a design programme on electronic devices to run, involving designers, engineers and ethnologists. ’I had to understand all the disciplines and relinquish interaction to others,’ he says.

Before long he was appointed head of Ideo London. ’The focus was more on how to grow talent and on what a creative company should look like,’ he says. ’It requires senior leaders to make space for up-and-coming stars to rise. It’s best to give as much responsibility as possible to those who are rising – and to hire people who will take your job.’

Hunter’s job at the Design Council is a natural progression from this. Taking an objective stance, it is his role to engage companies and organisations in design and to address global issues like climate change through it.

He left Ideo last August as the London office was rebuilding post-recession, believing he was not the right person to do that job. ’I asked myself whether I was inspired by the work I was getting to do. Ideo is an amazing organisation globally, but I struggled in Europe to get involved with big issues being addressed elsewhere,’ he says.

The call from the Design Council’s chief executive was timely. Hunter wanted to dig deeper into energy and sustainability issues – ironically, something his sister Nat is committed to – and here was the chance.

’I really care about design and I really care about this country,’ he says. ’It was a conscious choice.’ As chief design officer, he ’must bring design perspectives into the organisation. If we don’t use and understand design, then I’ve failed’, Hunter maintains.

’On a daily basis, it’s not that different from life in a consultancy. But what is so exciting about the Design Council is that it’s about doing – taking big issues [such as healthcare, security and energy] – and reducing them from high level to detailed action.’

One such issue is the council’s engagement with the design community – the £100 000 grant fund is evidence of his influence (see News). Hunter talks of ’collaboration, cohesion and speaking with one voice’. We can expect though, given the advice he has taken from his sister and his Ideo mentors, that he will also listen.

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