Nike's infamous swoosh is one of the most instantly recognizable logos in the world. The emblem is ever-present, from street wear to high-profile sports matches. The swoosh is so iconic, some consumers pulled it from their clothing in protest as Nike faced backlash for its decision to feature ex-NFL pro Colin Kaepernick in its 30th anniversary "Just Do It" campaign.
This symbol, one that helped take the company from a side-hustle to a multi-billion dollar sports brand, was purchased from a graphic design student for a mere $35.
Carolyn Davidson was first approached by Nike co-founder Phil Knight in the late 1960s. At the time, Davidson was a graphic design student at Portland State University and Knight was the little-known co-founder of Blue Ribbon Sports, making sales at track meets from his Plymouth Valiant.
Knight supplemented his income by teaching accounting courses at the university and, as fate would have it, overheard Davidson inform a classmate that she couldn't afford the high costs associated with a college oil painting course. Knight needed someone to create charts and graphs he could show Japanese footwear executives and offered Davidson the job. Her success in that gig led to recurring work designing posters, ads and flyers for the company.
In 1971, Knight and his co-founder, Bill Bowerman, needed a logo for a new line of running shoes they were introducing. The pair asked Davidson to create a striped logo that stood apart from established rivals Adidas and Puma. She received just one request: It had to look like speed.
Davison mocked up five designs — including the swoosh. Knight didn't particularly like any of the designs but the swoosh design stood out to him most. "Well, I don't love it," she recalls Knight saying about the logo, "but maybe it will grow on me."
Unsure how much to charge for her work, Davidson asked for $35 (adjusted for inflation, that's roughly $220 today). Later that year, the swoosh was used for the first time commercially and in 1972, Blue Ribbon Sports was renamed Nike.
Davidson would work for Nike for several more years until the company needed the help of major advertising agencies. Knight recognized he'd gotten a "pretty good bargain" and her contributions did not go unnoticed. In 1983, Davidson says she was invited to a surprise reception by Nike where the company served her chocolate swooshes and gifted her Nike stock and a gold swoosh ring. She has reportedly never sold any of that original stock.
Nearly 50 years later, the design is unchanged, having adorned countless celebrities and athletes. The company remains one of the world's most valuable brands — a brand Davidson's work helped build.
It's a role to which Davidson gives little weight. "When I see my design in everyday life today," she explained in one interview, "it's a little surreal and strange. While I'm proud of what I did, in some way I see it as just another design. It was Phil and the employees at Nike that turned the business into what it was. If they didn't have the savvy, it would have been just another drawing."
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