Delving into the life of Matt Jackson, CEO of BDG architecture + design, one year since he took the top job
Words By Emily Martin
All Images: Jefferson Smith
MARCH WILL mark the one-year anniversary for Matt Jackson as CEO of BDG architecture + design, taking over from Gill Parker who left after an impressive 25 years with the practice.
From first joining BDG as a graduate in Bristol, and then re-joining BDG as director of workplace some six years ago at its South Bank location, Jackson has more than 20 years industry experience and finds himself at the top of his career at a practice, which he says, is one of the most exciting places he’s ever worked. From taking those tentative first steps as a graduate to leading teams both in London and New York, Jackson talks about the importance of learning, regardless of level, and how team work really does make the dream work.
Graduating from a specialist design college in Maidenhead in the early 1990s, Jackson and his peers found work hard to come by.
He entered various competitions, with one awarding him with an accolade; a needed boost for his portfolio that helped stand him out from the swathe of junior design applicants for the few vacancies going. With this, he landed his first graduate job at BDG in his hometown of Bristol.
‘I spent a couple of years down there; very exciting times to be in Bristol for a start because it was, you know, it’s a very musical city, a cultural city with lots going on’, says Jackson. ‘But I learned a lot [and got to experience] what real work is about and, from my experience, every time we take on a graduate, I know that graduate probably won’t really know what the real world of work is because college is very different.’
Working as part of a small team of five people, Jackson was shown the ropes during a less digital time. There were more sticking materials on board and taking huge portfolios to client presentations. He thrived in this muti-role workplace, absorbing as much as he could from the experience. A keen learner, Jackson knew a time to move on would come.
‘I knew that if I was [to] really accelerate my learning, I’d have to try and come to London and work for one of the big companies where you have the really big budget projects,’ he says. ‘Back then London was still very much a centre of design, and all the big companies were doing work out of London after supporting the regional cities. So, I knew that I had to do it and came up [to London] with no job to really go to. It was quite a gamble.’
He worked at MCM Architecture for 15 years, describing it as a ‘career milestone’ which delivered retail projects and award winning legal practices. Joining as a junior designer, he left as design director. He then took a job at Gensler.
‘I learned so much about how design and business work together and did some fantastic projects,’ says Jackson about his time with Gensler. The role allowed him to expand his knowledge within the business of architecture in a practice with great resources.
One thing that Matt Jackson thinks is important about a successful workplace is its social environment. Image Credit: Jefferson Smith
‘I mean, I’ve never worked in a business that was about 4,500 people globally, highly connected and had an amazing amount of data and research,’ he continues. ‘I picked up different ways of doing things and every design business has different strengths and there were so many things that I could take forward.’
He stayed at the practice for six years, but a move back to a business with a workplace focus was something he was ultimately seeking, describing it as being his core area and strength. Meeting different companies at a time, he recalls the moment he came to BDG: ‘I just walked into the BDG studio down here on the South Bank: there was cool music playing, I think a dog walked up to me and it felt like it was full of life. I smiled straight away, and I thought “what a great entrance to this studio”. It felt like I’d just walked into somewhere very exciting. It’s almost like walking into a tech company that does design because it seemed like such a social place.
And it’s almost been like that every day. I don’t think I’ve ever walked into BDG and thought “oh God, it’s another day at work”. It’s always quite exciting, every day feels fresh and I feel like the studio vibe is just one of the big attractions.’
He speaks with genuine enthusiasm about BDG, which has high-profile clients including Sony Pictures, Lego and Sky, among others. With passion for the business, industry and a keen desire for learning, one can suppose that its no-wonder he finds himself leading BDG.
And that’s not mentioning his creative talents and abilities, which first caught the eye of his employer as an enthusiastic graduate, rising through the ranks from junior designer to CEO. One wonders what a young Jackson in Bristol would think if he knew he’d be taking charge one day?
‘I hope it would have happened. So it may have just happened a little bit earlier than expected,’ he says. ‘I’ve spent a lot of parts of my career doing different things. I have spent a lot of time doing design and design direction, but then I did go into a whole part of my career which was much more about the running of projects and the business side of it. So, all these things together put me into a good position of understanding what good design looks like and actually pushing it, making it thrive. And then also looking after teams both internally and externally. So these things together, they all work well and I work with a really good team.’
Repeatedly Jackson brings each job back to the importance of the other people involved and maintaining good teamwork, highlighting a core belief that both design and project work is not about one person. ‘It’s all about a massive team of people and everyone contributes,’ he says. ‘And that includes running a business. So with the [people] I have around me, the new leadership team that we’ve put in place, every one of those people is vital to making it all work. I might be there leading it and acting as a figurehead and making sure that we are doing everything in the right direction. But you know that everyone plays their part and that goes right down to every person doing the drawings. I am very excited about being in this role. It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind of fire the last six months but a very exciting whirlwind.’
The Dojo at Brunel Building in Paddington, London, was designed by BDG and completed in 2023. Image Credit: Jefferson Smith
Whilst it happened earlier than maybe expected, for Jackson, nevertheless, leading a business some midway through his career is a dream position and he credits the ‘incredible’ teams in London and New York. But BDG is not just an average day at the office, or an average business.
He says: ‘I’ve worked for different businesses and each of these businesses taught me different lessons on how I can navigate things, make sense of all decisions, but also be innovative and looking forward with some dynamism. I would never want to be sitting in an average business. I’ve always wanted to be [part of] something that’s going to stand out as much as we can; something that is offering something different.’