TWMX All Access: Kenny Safford

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It’s always interesting checking in with product designers…the guys who brainstorm the look and feel of new products. Whether it’s to peek over their shoulders and examine sketches of new concepts, to see what gets their creative juices flowing, or just marvel at their graphic art skills, it’s always a good time.

Kenny Safford is one of those guys whose talents have made motocross a more interesting and colorful place for over ten years. He’s been around since the original version of AXO, and has the memorabilia collection to prove it. He’s got one of the number one jerseys made in case Damon Bradshaw won the Supercross title in ’92. (Unfortunately, Damon eventually lost to Jeff Stanton.) From the quantity and variety of goodies that he’s collected, there’s no denying that he’s an unabashed fan of the sport.

Kenny was also around when AXO experimented with their own magazine, called Inside Motocross . At the time it was a shocker. It was an oversized glossy-covered magazine that celebrated the feeling of the sport, and proved to be early prototype of a lot of the current crop of MX magazines. Judging by the number of copies of Inside Motocross we’ve seen floating around (whether you’re talking about the pristine copies of each issue at David Vuillemin’s house, or the dog-eared copies that we’ve seen floating around), it made a mark of its own.

Now Kenny’s back where he started, and is looking to bring AXO back to the prominence they enjoyed in the early 80s. While visiting there recently, one of the crew had an interesting observation, “Whether they know it or not, the American motocross public has worn more of Kenny’s boots than any other boot out there.”

TransWorld Motocross: Coming back to AXO is like traveling full circle for you.

Kenny Safford: Yeah, I’m kind of right back where I started. AXO in the old days was my first job. I wasn’t even out of school yet and I was actually doing stuff. I was working at a photography studio for a guy named Dave Bush, and AXO was one of his clients. I was kind of moonlighting and kind of putting myself through school. I never made it all the way through school and got hired by AXO, and to make a long story short, here I am again.

It’s not the same company. The logo’s the same and the history and heritage is there, but everything else is different. The owners are different, and the staff. There are maybe two old-timers left in Italy that I recognized. But it’s nice because it’s going to be a challenge. It would be considered a startup company in some people’s eyes, but it has some panache and some things we can fall back on. Just about everybody who’s anybody rode for AXO at one time or another. McGrath, Stanton…even Carmichael, he started out on AXO. We have an opportunity to kind of revive this thing. It was kind of kicked around for a little while.

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We want to get back to what motocross is really all about. At AXO America, Inc., we design and distribute motocross stuff. We do have some Supermoto stuff, but our main focus is motocross. All along, that’s what I’ve been most interested in, especially since the early days. So it’s not that we’re going to relive or revive our youth, or the youth of the company, bute do think there’s something lacking in MX right now. The freestyle thing is good, and it has a soul, but the motocross thing is kind of…I think we lost a little bit of the emotion of motocross. Now it’s like you go to the Supercross, and it’s kind of a social thing. Everybody’s on the 24-inch wheels on their cars and the bling-bling, and all this. I think motocross is a little more than that. It’s a little more dirty, it’s more family, it’s more sport. It’s not so much ESPN2. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I think that the reason that AXO Sport thrived in the early days was that everybody just dug motocross. We all rode and we all hung out together and everybody liked the sport and liked the vibe that motocross had. That’s what we’re trying to get back.

If you can remember, there was a catalog in the early days called, ‘This is where the sport of motocross begins.’ I think the only rider we had in there was Jeff Leisk. It was just pictures we took out in the fields, and the butterflies you feel on the starting line, and the regret you feel after the moto when you let somebody pass you. It’s sport, and that’s what we’re trying to get back to.

TWMX: Is it a little too surgical these days?

KS:I don’t know exactly what it is. I know what we want to do…it’s like the old adage, ‘I don’t know what I want, but I know what I don’t want,’ (laughs) I’m being a finicky client at this point.

It’s not bad, and I don’t want to bag on the guys who are doing a good job at it, the Foxes and Thors and stuff. First of all, we don’t have the budget to throw around to get guys like that, so we need to get back and connect with us. With you, with me, with the guys who go to Gorman on the weekends and spend their $30 to go ride. Those are the guys who are really going to support you in the end.

TWMX: Take us back to what was going on when AXO introduced Inside Motocross .

KS:At that time, there were MXA and Dirt Rider . There wasn’t anything of the quality that TransWorld is, or where your competition’s at. Inside Motocross was kind of to get our sport to where it needed to be. Prior to that point, there weren’t so many outside sponsors, or so many 18-wheelers in the pits. It was before all that. Inside Motocross was kind of a celebration of the sport and a coffee table piece to be able to walk into these places and say, ‘Invest in us.’ Get more people riding, sell more stuff, and ultimately we’ll reap that benefit. So not only were we making a book to kind of please our egos, basically, but on the back end, it was in everybody’s best interest.

Jim was pushing hard to get competitor brands to advertise in it, and it was hard because it was an AXO product. It was basically like Fox giving us money. But it worked out, and has a place in motocross history and lore.

Dean Jocic and myself were the creative directors. Fran Kuhn was the Editor. He was the guy who approved everything. Heather Hane-Karr was the Art Director. AXO Sport, our group with Dean, myself and Fran, we kind of kept it true to motocross. Heather made it more production and publication-friendly, and Jim was just kind of signing checks at that point.

Everything was done in AXO. Heather put it all together, she laid out all the pages, and then Dean and myself approved it, and Fran would shoot all the stuff. He’d go shoot Bradshaw or Stanton, or Chicken with the iguana. Fran was the passion. That was his deal from the very beginning, and he’d wanted to do Inside Motocross forever. AXO was kind of the vehicle for him to do that.

TWMX: What were some of your other career steps along the way?

KS:When I started at AXO, that was in 1985, and I was there for almost nine years. We helped do Mechanix Wear, and that was the beginning of Renthal and we did the Sinisalo line for a while and doing all the team bikes and stuff like that.

After I left AXO, I started my own business, which was Safford Design. I pretty much did work for anybody who picked up the phone and called me. I was doing Pro Circuit and N-Style and I was freelancing for everybody. During that time I started a couple of clothing brands for myself. One was called Rocket Parts, and that was a mountain bike clothing line, and then one of the guys from the old AXO and Mechanix Wear had left there at that particular time, so he and I hooked up and started Ringers, which was like a competitor of Mechanix Wear. It’s still going on, and is like four or five million bucks a year.

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I picked up Alpinestars as a client when I was doing Safford Design, and my two main clients at the time were Sinisalo and Alpinestars. They took up the bulk of my time, but as time progressed, Alpinestars became this huge giant. When I started there they had one catalog, and it was 30 or 40 pages. Then when I left to start this deal, the apparel catalog was 100 pages, the boot catalog was 60 pages, the motorsports…driving stuff was 16 pages, and then they had all their casual and clothing stuff…that’s a whole separate division. It became…I don’t want to drag them under the bus, but I didn’t feel like I could do my best work there anymore because there was so much of it. For me, I kind of like to make sure that it’s right. Not only is it an Alpinestars or Fox or AXO product, it’s a product of me, so to have the thing be sub-par and have to explain, ‘Well, I was going to do this, or that…I didn’t want to have to do that anymore.’ This seemed like it had more opportunity for me.

Ten years of working for Alpinestars was quite a long time. I designed the Tech 8, I designed the Super Tech, the SMX Plus, we had a pretty good run.

TWMX: How do you design? Is it all computers these days?

KS:You might consider me old school, but I do things sort of half and half. I still sketch it out on pencil and paper. Concepts are a little more emotional and they kind flow a little bit easier when you have a pencil. It’s not so rigid and x/y like on a computer. So I pretty much sketch almost everything, except for a t-shirt or something like that.

After that, put it on the scanner, run it through Photoshop, color it, and monkey with it that way. Then when it has to go into 2D CAM or into production, that’s when I go 100 percent into the computer and do everything in Illustrator or some sort of page layout program. Everything you do these days ends up on the computer some way, but at least for me, maybe because of how I went to school or just because I’m more comfortable doing it, I still sketch almost everything.

I think you can take more creative license and you can make the proposal a little more interesting when you sketch because you can take more chances with things, or kind of exaggerate things a little bit more when you draw. On the computer, people expect it be like perfect, because the computer’s perfect. If it’s like, ‘Well, is it going to be like this? Are the lines going to look like that?’ You have to explain everything. For me, drawing is a lot easier.

TWMX: Where does your design style come from?

KS:You know, I kind of like old hot rod stuff. Growing up, my dad was a drag racer. So I’m a little more mechanical, and I like billet and I like aluminum, and I like sand cast, and I like Von Dutch, and I like Troy Lee stuff a lot. I think I take design cues from a lot of different things, and I really like the way that Nike approaches things. Whenever I start a project, I kind of scratch my head and say, ‘What would Nike do? What would Oakley do? What would somebody who doesn’t do this stuff, what would they do if they were asked to do something?’

My design philosophy, if you want to say something like that, is a little bit more automotive. More so than snowboard or skate or something like that. You can kind of see that.

After I left AXO, I started my own business, which was Safford Design. I pretty much did work for anybody who picked up the phone and called me. I was doing Pro Circuit and N-Style and I was freelancing for everybody. During that time I started a couple of clothing brands for myself. One was called Rocket Parts, and that was a mountain bike clothing line, and then one of the guys from the old AXO and Mechanix Wear had left there at that particular time, so he and I hooked up and started Ringers, which was like a competitor of Mechanix Wear. It’s still going on, and is like four or five million bucks a year.

[IMAGE 2]

I picked up Alpinestars as a client when I was doing Safford Design, and my two main clients at the time were Sinisalo and Alpinestars. They took up the bulk of my time, but as time progressed, Alpinestars became this huge giant. When I started there they had one catalog, and it was 30 or 40 pages. Then when I left to start this deal, the apparel catalog was 100 pages, the boot catalog was 60 pages, the motorsports…driving stuff was 16 pages, and then they had all their casual and clothing stuff…that’s a whole separate division. It became…I don’t want to drag them under the bus, but I didn’t feel like I could do my best work there anymore because there was so much of it. For me, I kind of like to make sure that it’s right. Not only is it an Alpinestars or Fox or AXO product, it’s a product of me, so to have the thing be sub-par and have to explain, ‘Well, I was going to do this, or that…I didn’t want to have to do that anymore.’ This seemed like it had more opportunity for me.

Ten years of working for Alpinestars was quite a long time. I designed the Tech 8, I designed the Super Tech, the SMX Plus, we had a pretty good run.

TWMX: How do you design? Is it all computers these days?

KS:You might consider me old school, but I do things sort of half and half. I still sketch it out on pencil and paper. Concepts are a little more emotional and they kind flow a little bit easier when you have a pencil. It’s not so rigid and x/y like on a computer. So I pretty much sketch almost everything, except for a t-shirt or something like that.

After that, put it on the scanner, run it through Photoshop, color it, and monkey with it that way. Then when it has to go into 2D CAM or into production, that’s when I go 100 percent into the computer and do everything in Illustrator or some sort of page layout program. Everything you do these days ends up on the computer some way, but at least for me, maybe because of how I went to school or just because I’m more comfortable doing it, I still sketch almost everything.

I think you can take more creative license and you can make the proposal a little more interesting when you sketch because you can take more chances with things, or kind of exaggerate things a little bit more when you draw. On the computer, people expect it be like perfect, because the computer’s perfect. If it’s like, ‘Well, is it going to be like this? Are the lines going to look like that?’ You have to explain everything. For me, drawing is a lot easier.

TWMX: Where does your design style come from?

KS:You know, I kind of like old hot rod stuff. Growing up, my dad was a drag racer. So I’m a little more mechanical, and I like billet and I like aluminum, and I like sand cast, and I like Von Dutch, and I like Troy Lee stuff a lot. I think I take design cues from a lot of different things, and I really like the way that Nike approaches things. Whenever I start a project, I kind of scratch my head and say, ‘What would Nike do? What would Oakley do? What would somebody who doesn’t do this stuff, what would they do if they were asked to do something?’

My design philosophy, if you want to say something like that, is a little bit more automotive. More so than snowboard or skate or something like that. You can kind of see that influence a little bit in certain things, and I guess as a designer you can kind of pick up on where somebody might have gotten their inspiration from, so for me I guess if another designer was looking at my stuff they might think it was 50s or 60s hot rod, I guess.

TWMX: Do you have a clean slate to work at AXO now? Or do you have certain design elements that you have to keep?

KS:You know, the only thing specific at this point is the logo. Actually, the first couple days I was here I kind of cleaned it up a little bit and rounded the corners off and made everything a little bit more precise. Other than that, it’s a clean sheet of paper. They know what needs to be done, and they think that Chris (Stangl) has the ability to do what he has to do in sales and that kind of stuff. Obviously, they hired me to do what I’m going to do. If I was just going to be a puppet and just change colors on things, it wouldn’t have been that appealing to me. I have free reign to do whatever I want. Obviously, we have to sell pants for whatever it is, and we need boots for this price, so I can’t make things out of titanium and unobtanium or whatever the case is, but it’s wide open…be number one.

It was actually a pretty big and pretty efficient art department back in the early 90s. There were six or seven guys, and we did everything. At that point I wasn’t doing ads, and I was quasi-art director. Jim Hale was still the creative director, and he kind of put his stamp of approval on everything. But again, we knew what we were doing and what needed to be done, so the directive was, ‘Let’s be number one and stay number one,’ and that’s kind of a dream job for a designer and developer. You’re not having to work for Hyundai or something, where you’re like, ‘This costs five cents too much.’

I know for sure that I can design stuff as well as anybody else, so I don’t have that fear. I know that AXO wants to be number one, and I know that they want to make the best stuff, so I’m not afraid that they’re going to find the best vendors or make it themselves. Again, if all the pieces weren’t exactly right, the Alpinestars thing wasn’t terrible.

People always ask me, ‘Dude, why would you ever leave there?’ Well, call me an idiot, but it seemed like a better challenge as a designer than that was, because it was number one. It wasn’t on cruise control, but it wasn’t a challenge. It was like if there was a rider to be had, he was bought or signed. Everything was at your beck and call. It wasn’t down and dirty any more as far as designs and motivation.

A project like this can be inspiring, or it can be just a hellacious memo that you’re never going to get any sleep at night. If you expect that you can do the best work, then it’s not that big a deal. But if you’re sweating it out, and you don’t think you can, then it’s a mountain you’re never going to climb.

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see that influence a little bit in certain things, and I guess as a designer you can kind of pick up on where somebody might have gotten their inspiration from, so for me I guess if another designer was looking at my stuff they might think it was 50s or 60s hot rod, I guess.

TWMX: Do you have a clean slate to work at AXO now? Or do you have certain design elements that you have to keep?

KS:You know, the only thing specific at this point is the logo. Actually, the first couple days I was here I kind of cleaned it up a little bit and rounded the corners off and made everything a little bit more precise. Other than that, it’s a clean sheet of paper. They know what needs to be done, and they think that Chris (Stangl) has the ability to do what he has to do in sales and that kind of stuff. Obviously, they hired me to do what I’m going to do. If I was just going to be a puppet and just change colors on things, it wouldn’t have been that appealing to me. I have free reign to do whatever I want. Obviously, we have to sell pants for whatever it is, and we need boots for this price, so I can’t make things out of titanium and unobtanium or whatever the case is, but it’s wide open…be number one.

It was actually a pretty big and pretty efficient art department back in the early 90s. There were six or seven guys, and we did everything. At that point I wasn’t doing ads, and I was quasi-art director. Jim Hale was still the creative director, and he kind of put his stamp of approval on everything. But again, we knew what we were doing and what needed to be done, so the directive was, ‘Let’s be number one and stay number one,’ and that’s kind of a dream job for a designer and developer. You’re not having to work for Hyundai or something, where you’re like, ‘This costs five cents too much.’

I know for sure that I can design stuff as well as anybody else, so I don’t have that fear. I know that AXO wants to be number one, and I know that they want to make the best stuff, so I’m not afraid that they’re going to find the best vendors or make it themselves. Again, if all the pieces weren’t exactly right, the Alpinestars thing wasn’t terrible.

People always ask me, ‘Dude, why would you ever leave there?’ Well, call me an idiot, but it seemed like a better challenge as a designer than that was, because it was number one. It wasn’t on cruise control, but it wasn’t a challenge. It was like if there was a rider to be had, he was bought or signed. Everything was at your beck and call. It wasn’t down and dirty any more as far as designs and motivation.

A project like this can be inspiring, or it can be just a hellacious memo that you’re never going to get any sleep at night. If you expect that you can do the best work, then it’s not that big a deal. But if you’re sweating it out, and you don’t think you can, then it’s a mountain you’re never going to climb.

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