For our January Beginnings Issue, we interviewed 14 different achievers, from a rookie cop to a new American citizen, about the act of starting—or starting over. Brian Allen, an illustrator based in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, shares how he helped create Gritty alongside the Philadelphia Flyers marketing team and VP of marketing and communications Joe Heller.
How did the project get started? Did the Flyers reach out to you?
They sent me an email kind of out of the blue. They had found me, I think, from a project I had done for Chick-fil-A. In 2017, Chick-fil-A put a pop-up restaurant right on the state line for the Georgia and Auburn football game, and they hired me to wrap the whole restaurant in vinyl and illustrate the Georgia bulldog fighting the Auburn tiger, but in an edgier, comic-book style. The Flyers wanted Gritty to be tough, but he still had to appeal to kids. So they saw my artwork, which had that little bit of edginess to it, and they wanted to see what my take on a mascot would be.
Did you have a rough outline of what the character would look like?
When they first reached out to me, I knew they were hiring me for the first stage of putting together a lot of rough sketches on my ideas for the mascot. I knew if I didn’t draw something they really liked, the project probably wouldn’t go any further. Before I started drawing, I made a list of 50 different ideas and pitched that to the Flyers. From there, we narrowed it down. I did rough sketches. We explored bulls. Monsters. A bat at one point. Once they picked the direction, they gave feedback. Let’s try this, let’s try that. We didn’t want him to look too similar to any other NHL mascot. The Flyers wanted him to have the ability to express himself. So I did a lot of research with Jim Henson puppetry—Sesame Street creations and things from The Dark Crystal, which was a big influence on me as a kid. We always described him the same way: “We want a gritty look to him.” They wanted him to look like somebody you wanted to high-five, but not hug. So it’s funny that Gritty ended up being his name, because it fits perfectly.
From there, I drew a turnaround sketch—which is the front, side, and back of a character—so we could hand it to Character Translations, who took the full-color drawing and used that as the blueprint to make the costume.
What advice would you give to someone beginning a new project?
When you’re working with clients, you have to remember it’s no longer just about you as an artist. You have to make sure that you totally understand what the client wants. And if they don’t know what they want, you have to be able to help them figure that out. If they think they know what they want, but you don’t think that’s the right direction, you also have to learn how to guide them. You also want to do a lot of rough thumbnail sketches before investing a lot of time in anything. Clients like to see options, and that can help you—rather than just throwing one thing at them, if you throw five things at them, instead of thinking, Well, this isn’t the one I want, it becomes a question of, Well, which one of these things do I want? It makes the communication process a lot easier. Luckily, with the Flyers, none of that happened. The team was really great to work with—they were really clear about their feedback, and we were pretty much on the same page.
How did you get involved with art?
My grandmother, my uncle, and my great-grandfather were all artists, and my brother is also a really talented artist. As kids, we used to draw all of our own action figures and cut them out of cardboard. But I didn’t get serious about it until high school. I had an art teacher who was really supportive and encouraged me to start submitting to art contests—I won a small scholarship, which was an affirmation that maybe this could work. After college, I got a job at a motorcycle graphics company. My boss there taught me a lot of what I know now, but he also taught me how to run your own business. So in 2012, after that job and about seven years as an illustrator for a book publishing company, I decided to quit and do this full-time. Ever since then, the business [Flyland Designs] has just grown each year. It’s been really rewarding and exciting.
What has the response been like since Gritty made his debut?
So, obviously the first couple days’ response was very different from the response now. When we went into this, the art directors told me that we should brace for possibly an initial negative reaction—they were aware that since the Flyers hadn’t had a mascot for so long, many fans might not want one. Still, the art directors knew they needed to create something to bring the next generation of hockey fans and players into the games. The idea behind Gritty was to create a personality that new, younger fans could identify with.
So I was bracing for that a bit, but I had no idea it would be that strong. Whenever you create anything, you want everybody to love it, even if that’s not realistic. But what happened really quickly was that people started to come to Gritty’s defense. I got fan art and pictures of Gritty cakes from people; somebody even sent a picture of an Etch-A-Sketch portrait they made. And the Flyers’ marketing team and the guy in the suit himself did such an amazing job of rolling with it and almost making that initial negative reaction part of his personality.
The way I look at it, any new member of a team has to go through that same process. He’s the new guy, and he’s going to have to earn respect. I went to a game recently and met Gritty for the first time, and whenever he came out, you would hear everybody around him—kids and adults—saying, “Oh, look, it’s Gritty!” So now Gritty is here, and he’s here to stay.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.