The former Head of Brand Design at Google opened his own studio, Punk Works, this January. Hurst recently sat down with Creative Boom to introduce his new venture and share why he wants more branding agencies to embrace their punk side.
When Creative Boom last interviewed James Hurst, he'd freshly joined the team at Google – a dream job. Eight months later, when Google's parent company Alphabet announced it would cut 12,000 jobs, Hurst found himself in a new reality, needing a different dream.
Upon hearing the news that cuts would affect his role, Hurst's first response was to take to the sea. "I'm an ardent surfer," he told Creative Boom. "I took myself out on the board and went through all the stages of grief out there in the water. It was a tough thing."
But Hurst's nearly 20 years of experience in the creative industries mean he's no stranger to adapting to change, and he quickly transitioned from grieving his time at Google to planning his next move. "I wanted to do something I had control over," he told Creative Boom.
He also wanted to do something that would give him more opportunities to do creative work alongside his leadership role. "I'm good at three things," he said. "Solving problems with my head, listening to my heart, and working with my hands. I wanted my next venture to include all three components."
Knowing this, the next step became clear: Hurst would strike out alone. Enter Punk Works, his new studio venture.
Punk Works results from Hurst's career-long mission to empower companies to live out their values and build their own brands. Hurst told Creative Boom that the studio is "built on a belief in DIY culture and the idea that clients can build strong brands on their own, with the right tools and support. Rather than trying to take over a client's brand, Punk Works aims to equip clients with the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to take control of their brand and understand the spirit of their company."
Last year, Hurst published Use Design to Design Change, a book created to help conscious companies build thriving brands. Punk Works will put that mission into practice.
Through Punk Works, Hurst, his core team, and a network of creative freelancers take a holistic approach to solving brand problems, working closely with clients to build workshops and experiences that foster real collaboration. Hurst's goal is to ensure that clients are fully kitted out with the knowledge and tools they need to express their brand values and live their mission in a way that positively impacts people and the planet.
"With the rise of conscious consumerism and a growing preference for brands that align with personal values, Punk Works aims to help brands understand and live by their values, measure their impact, and communicate this to the world," Hurst told Creative Boom.
Punk Works isn't Hurst's first foray into studio ownership – in the 2000s, he founded Cure Studio, as well as an illustration agency and a type foundry before returning to agency life and ultimately to Pinterest, where he served as Global Creative Director for nearly three years before moving on to Google.
But the conversation around brand and design has moved on significantly since Hurst was running his own shop, and the progress has made room for the kind of work that's always been at the heart of his own creative ambitions – building brands for conscious companies. He told Creative Boom that Punk Works is the studio he wished he could have run from the beginning.
Back when he founded Cure Studio, Hurst already had a strong inclination to help brands live out their social and environmental values, but not many companies were there yet. In the years since, the conversation around brand values and purpose has finally outrun shallow, marketing-focussed brand techniques, and Hurst says he's excited to meet brands where they are – as more and more brands find themselves ready to focus on building brands that have a positive impact on people and the planet, while still being profitable.
Punk Works' own values and brand are rooted, unsurprisingly given the studio's name, in counter-culture. Hurst told Creative Boom he was deeply inspired by the creativity of punk culture – including the DIY attitude of zines, indie record labels, and underground gigs. "It's about rolling up your sleeves and doing it yourself. Punk culture says anybody can set up a record label or book store to convey important ideals." Hurst has followed suit by going into business for himself and creating a studio designed to address the issues he cares about most through design.
He hopes that Punk Works will offer an antidote to the status quo and that the creative industry at large will build on the punk attitude that's needed to challenge what's no longer working for brands – namely, the outdated, marketing-focussed idea that Hursts pegs brand as "a tool for telling people what they want to hear."
Hurst and many of his contemporaries in the creative industries want more from brands and the agencies serving them. "I don't think the world is in a very good place right now, and I see that as a challenge we should address and deal with." Brands, he says, have "the ability to galvanise groups of people. So it's important to use that influence and whatever opportunities we've got to leave an impact on the planet."