HbD Interviews: Kris Bazen (The “Buffaslug”)
This is the third interview I’m done with designers of NHL logos, and while this logo is no longer being used, it’s still extremely well-known and well-recognized…for all the wrong reasons. The Buffalo Sabres’ logo from 2006-2010, which became known as the “Buffaslug”, was the work of Kris Bazen, an employee with Reebok at the time that they were streamlining all the NHL jerseys. The Sabres thought it was a good time to redesign their logo from the flaming demonic buffalo head to something a little more forward-thinking but still grounded in their history.
I’m sure Greg Wyshynski over at Puck Daddy, who basically did the same interview a couple months ago, will get more hits for his article, but this one is different in the sense that it’s less editorialized and straight from the designer himself, as is the style of the other interviews I’ve done.
So, where did the Buffaslug come from and how does it feel to create something that’s pretty much universally reviled? Read on…
HbD: What was your role within Reebok at the time?
The group of designers I was in, we mostly dealt with apparel graphics. My job was essentially an apparel graphics designer and opportunities would present themselves for us to work on identity and branding projects, and this was one of the first projects that I had worked on as a team member. As we’re pulled in by higher-ups in our department, it was an on-going process where we would provide sketches and they would give design directions based on what the client was looking for and what they felt might be trend-relevant at the time.
HbD: What was the process with the Sabres? How long? How many revisions? How happy were they?
Kris Bazen: It’s something that happened between the higher-ups and the Sabres. I’m not sure who went and presented to who and I’m not sure if the team comes to Reebok asking for a change or if Reebok went to them and suggested a change. I was just a lower designer on the totem pole at the time, as part of the group of designers. But, the process went on for several months actually, so I wouldn’t say it was anything that was hurried or a rush job, and it was a pretty extensive process.
HbD: I know from the image that you posted on your website of a bunch of different variations of a similar concept that led to the logo design, but before and after that, how many different variations were there through the entire process?
KB: That was a collection of work that had been done over several months. There would maybe be a handful that we’d come up with of different designs, going down different avenues, so you might have six or seven ideas, and along those lines, you would try to figure out which ones were the most relevant, which really stood out to the team, which we felt strongly and could get behind.
So, that look had evolved because initially I had tried to come up with that was more of an evolution from their previous logo, rather than a revolution. But, at the same time, we wanted to do something that was a little more forward thinking. We dabbled in two or three that were rooted in tradition and then introduced a couple different options that were a little more forward thinking.
But, the thread that you see was accumulated over the course of months. That was throughout the entire creative process for myself. We had different designers on this at the same time, so I can’t imagine how many different concepts were churned out throughout the entire project.
HbD: So obviously the higher-ups at Reebok and the Sabres organization liked the direction you were going in with the concepts.
KB: Yes, definitely. At the end of the day, the client has to sign off on the design and they were on board of a more progressive direction and a little more streamlined and stylized in comparison to having something that was really entrenched in heritage and history. I think at that time, bringing back the blue and gold was a big thing for them but I don’t know how much of it was the team telling Reebok it was the direction they wanted to go in. Ultimately, it was decided that this concept was what they were going to go forward with. I just tried to design with the mindset that we were looking for something a little more forward and progressive, and aggressive and streamlined and stylized. We weren’t looking to avoid any historic ties, it was just something that I was given down the pipeline.
HbD: And how did you first feel about the finished design before it hit the public?
KB: For me, it was one of things where I was excited to have something of this magnitude going out to the public. This was a great opportunity for me to establish myself as an identity designer. Granted, it might not have been received well, but I felt pretty positive after the project was wrapped. Although, it might have been a little more of the “finally!” feeling where I had finally done something big and delivered on a project like this. It was until after it went public and some of the backlash was received that I started to second-guess myself and started thinking that maybe there was a mis-step, maybe I didn’t do what was best for business. I wouldn’t say that through the process I didn’t try keep the fans in mind because I did, but at the end of the day, you’re also trying to design for the client as well.
It’s difficult when you’re in that position because you want to do a good job based on what’s asked on you. You can provide insight and information that may cause the design to go in an opposite direction, but I don’t think I was concerned as much, and maybe because I wasn’t a hockey fan from the get-go, I might not have understood the weight of what I was doing. And I saw that a lot on the comment threads that it wasn’t a hockey design, and it wasn’t a hockey fan who designed it, and this is true. But it doesn’t mean I don’t respect the sport and it doesn’t mean I didn’t make an attempt to give them something good. I understand the essence of sport and maybe I might not have understood the nuances and the history and all the traditions of hockey, and why things are the way they are. Ultimately, yes, I try to do my best.
HbD: And what was you initial reaction to the public’s reaction? As far as I can recall, the negative comments were coming pretty fast and furious the minute it was released.
KB: Oh yeah, it was a very strong dislike to say the least. I sat there and wondered (I was really trying wrap my head around it) if it was that big of a deal. And the more comments I saw that came out, I realized that it was pretty serious. I didn’t know when it was going to end, and you’re hanging on the comments that people make and everybody is just roasting you, it difficult to keep your head held high.
The thing that really helped me get through it was that I had a lot of strong teammates around me, other people that had had experiences dealing with the failures where things don’t turn out the way you’d expect them to. It became a kind of rite of passage for me where, if everyone has to take a failure at some point, then here was mine. I wouldn’t say I was ever at a point where I was questioning what I was doing or if I was cut out for it, there was just nothing else I could do. I couldn’t just take it back at that point. If anything, it gave me fuel to do a better job next time out.
But definitely, it was a little disheartening for a while. I wouldn’t say that I always took it like a champ. You have a tendency to treat these things like your babies, but after everything, I knew I had given it my all and there’s nothing else I could do. I couldn’t take it back and I couldn’t go out and custom-tailor something for everybody’s tastes. Even if there’s websites out there saying to fix the logo, or if there’s other people their options of logos, whatever, it’s done.
HbD: Did you ever get a sense of how the Sabres’ organization reacted to all the feedback?
KB: No. And I didn’t really go out seeking that either. I just let it be what it was and kept pushing forward. Obviously, I was occupied by my primary job function, but definitely it sat in the back of my mind. I just wanted to see how things would go once the season progressed and fortunately Buffalo went on a really hot streak. I read articles about how merchandise sales for the Sabres improved several hundred percent and I wondered whether it’s due to the streak or if it’s due to people finally embracing this logo or whatever, so I just took that as a win because, at that point, I was going to take it any way I could get it, and let that just be something positive that came out of it.
HbD: Absolutely. A logo always looks better when it’s attached to a winning team, or a team that’s playing really well.
KB: Yeah, I don’t deny that at all. If you’re a fan of a team that’s successful, then some people won’t care if you smear crap on a jersey, as long as they’re winning. But, I’m not saying that what I did was terrible. It’s not that I’m in denial or anything like that, but I’m not going to blast it either because I was at a point where I was trying to do my best work. I’m not going to fault myself for trying hard, or because people say it’s terrible. That’s something that I had to live with, and I’m okay with it now.
HbD: I’m sure you quickly develop a pretty thick skin in a situation like that.
KB: Yeah, you have to, but there were times when the subject comes up, and it gets to be a little bit sore, like “Are we really still talking about this?”. But now I’m at the point where enough time has passed and I’ve seen a lot of people that bash a lot of logos and I know there’s a lot of people trying hard to create great work. It just happens that things don’t always go according to plan. And I just have to live with that, for better or for worse.
HbD: But, as you mentioned earlier, you worked with a team of designers, and how much input would you say they had on the logo?
I saw on one thread on comments, someone had posed a question asking who was the guy who had designed the logo. I won’t say I was the person who was behind all of it. I wasn’t. It was more that a lot of my concepts progressed further down the line. If I was to put those concepts in order, you could definitely see the lineage of it all and see how it came to pass. So, I can’t take full credit for that, for better or for worse!
HbD: And at some point, your higher-ups at Reebok approved it, the Buffalo Sabres approved it. There would have been a lot of people approving the design during the whole process.
KB: Right. After it happens, a lot of people want to blame management, or blame Reebok for putting me in the lead, but I wasn’t in the lead. Nobody handed the reins to me and told me to just do my thing. They wanted our team to come up with some ideas that they could present to the Sabres and see what is in line with how they want to present themselves. So, we work up a bunch of options and hope that something sticks. Ultimately, the Sabres make the final decision on what they want to go forward with.
I don’t really like to say “blame”, like some people blaming them because they knew they were putting out this “garbage”, and so on. I can guarantee you that nobody said they we knew it was garbage, but we’ll put it out there anyway.
HbD: The main reason I contacted you about this interview (and why Puck Daddy interviewed you) was because you put out an image of your progression of concepts for the logo on your website. What prompted you to do that?
KB: I think enough time has passed where Buffalo has phased out that mark from their system, I’ve been gone from Reebok for over a year and there wasn’t going to be any harm done to anyone by showing it. It was just good to let people know what happens behind the scenes because I think a lot of spectators get it skewed to an extent. They think there was just one idea, and we decided to just keep shovelling it along and try to force it on people. But, that’s not the case. We tried to exhaust as many options as possible to make sure that we’re putting the best product out there. I wanted to let people behind the curtain a little bit, and let people know there’s much more than what meets the eye
HbD: It’s interesting too to also see how the Sabres eventually reacted, as within a few years, they went back to a slightly modified version of their original logo despite originally wanting something more forward-thinking, as you mentioned. I’m assuming this was to appease their fan base to a certain degree.
KB: I think there’s a certain amount of time before teams will go through a full identity change, and enough time has passed that they decided to give them what they wanted. I wouldn’t say whether that’s right or wrong, but it just proves that they are about the fans and they are listening, and it makes sense. I don’t have any hard feelings or feel that it wasn’t given a fair shake. They lived with it for years, so what more can you ask for, especially for such a vocal fan base.
And I’ll say this, I totally respect the passion of Sabres’ fans. People will always grumble and such about changes to their teams identity. I’m a Cleveland Browns fan, and if somebody ever tried to put a logo on the side of their helmets, it would be like blasphemy to me. But I’m glad they’re in a better place now where they have what they want and I’m still very thankful that I had the chance to work on something like that. Did it turn out to be a sparkling happy experience? No. But, at the same time, I feel really great about the designer I’ve become since then.
HbD: So, you’re still designing for sports logo and identities since you’ve left Reebok?
KB: Absolutely. Designing logos and identities is probably my favourite thing to do outside of illustrating.
HbD: And I’m sure the experiences since then have been more positive than the Sabres experience.
KB: Definitely. One of the bigger ones I’ve done is the Washington Wizards, their secondary mark with the Washington Monument on it. I came up with that as a member of the Adidas team. And also helping with uniform elements like numbers and typefaces for the Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves. Now I find myself in the college market and trying to do more identity work there, but I do a lot of campaign marks as well for upcoming seasons and events.
HbD: Anything else you’d like to add?
KB: I definitely want to give a shout out to my friends at Reebok and Adidas who were part of this process with me. I definitely couldn’t have done it by myself, that’s for sure, and thanks to them for supporting me, even when things felt like they were falling apart and things didn’t turn out the way we had hoped. I had a strong group of friends and teammates that, in the end, made it a really positive experience for me and made me see the worth and value of it all.
And to all the Sabres’ fans, and people who visited the site, thanks for the support and positive comments. And I also want to give a shout out to people who didn’t care for the logo and were vocal about it. I respect that, and no hard feelings.
As a designer myself, I can understand the horror that comes with a complete rejection of something I’ve worked hard on and thought was a good design. This is something on a larger scale than anything I’ve done myself, so the fact that Kris brought up the topic of this logo again and doesn’t have any hard feelings again Buffalonians proves that he’s a stand-up guy.
And he’s a great designer too. You can check out his website at bazeiskpbl.com.
Much thanks to Kris for agreeing to do this interview!