Logo big or go home: How Nike got its swoosh for just $35

A college student was asked to design something that evoked movement. More than five decades later, it’s still just doing it.
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· 3 min read

These logos are imprinted in our minds. This is a new feature about where they came from and why they work.

Brand: Nike

Original logo designer: Carolyn Davidson

Year: 1971

Opening Knight: In 1971, Phil Knight co-owned (with University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman) an athletic-shoe company called Blue Ribbon Sports, a US distributor of the Japanese Onitsuka Tiger brand of running shoes. But Knight and Bowerman were about to introduce their own brand of shoes, which would debut the following year. The company would be renamed Nike, after the winged Greek goddess of victory.

Knight taught accounting part-time at Portland State University and hired an undergraduate design student there, Carolyn Davidson, to draft logo design options for the shoe. Knight’s only direction was that it “have something to do with movement,” Davidson told ABC News in 2016.

Among her sketches was a wing-like shape that we know today as the swoosh. After Knight presented her designs to others at his then-small company, he told her the verdict.

“I remember him coming out and saying they had picked the swoosh, that he didn’t love it, but maybe it would grow on him,” Davidson recalled to ABC News.

Davidson’s bill for creating the Nike swoosh: $35.

Why it works: “Great solutions can come from anyone and I think the fact that she was a student doesn’t mean she can’t come up with an amazing logo,” David Heasty, a partner and co-founder of New York’s Triboro Design, which has designed logos for brands including Vox Media and BLK DNM, told us. “There’s something about the purity of any of those solutions that come from just kind of doing…from sort of the startup mentality of like, ‘We’re starting something new, you know, let’s be bold, let’s be courageous.’”

Or as Nike might put it, just do it.

“In terms of its structure, it’s two points, it’s a beginning and an end,” Heasty said of the swoosh. “But I think what’s interesting about it is because it swells the way it does, it actually kind of references the idea of exercise in general: You start out slow, you build up the intensity.”

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High-water mark: Among Americans, the swoosh is the fourth most-recognizable brand logo, with Apple first, Mcdonald’s second, and Coca-Cola third, according to a survey released in 2020 from Promotique by Vistaprint and OnePoll.

Nike ➡️ NYC: In 2013, Heasty’s firm was hired by Nike to create a Nike logo specifically for New York. Triboro took the capitalized “NIKE,” which is in the Future Bold font and italicized, and blotted out the “I,” the lower right segment of the “K,” and the middle line of the “E, to form, more or less, “NYC.”

The execution was intentionally inelegant—in one example, a white marker does not quite blot out all of the parts it was eliminating; in another, a neon sign has glass tubing for all of the Nike letters, but only the NYC elements are illuminated.

Paying up: While Nike has faced a fair share of scrutiny for accusations around labor practices, the company did end up compensating Davidson beyond the $35 paid for her design.

For starters, she became a full-time employee at Nike, working there for four years, until 1975. Then, in 1983, the company surprised her with a gift of what Knight in 2010 reportedly said was 500 shares of stock.

“When I see my design in everyday life today, it’s a little surreal and strange,” Davidson told ABC News, adding that she thought it was the business strategy of Nike’s executives that truly made the logo ubiquitous. “If they didn’t have the savvy, it would have been just another drawing."—AAN

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