The Nike Swoosh is ubiquitous… it’s on every imaginable type of apparel, footwear and gear; it’s worn and endorsed by world class athletes; it’s recognized around the globe, requiring no translation. So you’d think that something with this kind of recognizability and brand power must have taken years to develop by a team of branding experts… right? Wrong! For a mere $35, the iconic “Swoosh” was designed 45 years ago by Woman You Should Know Carolyn Davidson while she was a graphic design student at Portland State University. This is her unbelievable story.
As reported by OregonLive, in 1971 Carolyn was a student at Portland State University at the same time that soon-to-be Nike co-founder Phil Knight was there. Then, Phil was a young associate professor of accounting at PSU, a side-hustle he had while running Blue Ribbon Sports – a small, fledgling company that served as a West Coast distributor of Japanese-made Onitsuka Tiger brand sneakers in the U.S.
One fateful day, Carolyn was sitting in a hallway at the school working on a drawing assignment, when Phil happened to walk by. As the story goes, he overheard her talking about an oil painting class she wanted to take but couldn’t afford. So he chimed in and offered to pay her hourly if she would do some design work for his small company. She accepted.
Her initial work for Phil involved making charts and graphs for his Blue Ribbon Sports meetings with executives visiting from Japan. But Phil, who was ready to strike out on his own with a product – “cleated shoes for football or soccer” – he was having made out of a plant in Mexico, gave Carolyn a new assignment. He needed an identity – or a logo – for the new shoe brand he was preparing to launch.
In a 2011 interview, Carolyn told OregonLive that Phil said his shoe “would need a ‘stripe,’ which was the industry term for a shoe logo.” He told her “it needed to convey motion and that it couldn’t look like the logos of Adidas, Puma or Onitsuka’s Tiger.” She found it challenging to come up with a single logo that had to hit so many critical marks: 1. convey motion; 2. look good on a shoe; 3. be original and 4. appeal to Phil and his team, especially because Phil really loved the three stripes of Adidas. She said, “…when you really love something, try to get somebody to look over here at something different.”
For two or three weeks she sketched out potential logos by hand on tissue paper and would then lay them over a drawing of a shoe she’d done. She presented 5 or 6 of her final designs to Phil and two other Nike executives and they weren’t immediately blown away by any of them. But since time was short, they were willing to accept the bulbous “checkmark” Carolyn created, which was her favorite. “Well, I don’t love it,” Phil Knight said at the time, “but maybe it will grow on me.” Famous last words.
With no time for Carolyn to refine or clean up her design, that “checkmark” went as is to the U.S. Patent Office where it was recorded on June 18, 1971. And the rest, as they say, is history…
In 1972, Phil’s Blue Ribbon Sports began selling shoes under the Nike name, named after the Greek goddess of victory. In June 1972, the first running shoes bearing the Swoosh were introduced at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
Carolyn graduated from PSU in 1971 with a bachelor’s in graphic design and stayed on with Nike through 1975, designing ads, brochures, posters and catalogues. As the company continued to grow by leaps and bounds there came a point when her one-person design shop was too small to handle Nike’s advertising needs. Nike and Carolyn agreed it was time for a full-service ad agency. She then opted for homemaking and doing freelance design work, which she continued doing for almost 30 years.
Though she only made $35 for designing the now iconic Swoosh, Carolyn’s epic contribution to Nike did not go unrecognized. In 1983, three years after Nike went public, the execs surprised her with a party where, among several tokens of appreciation, they gave her an undisclosed amount of shares of Nike stock. Years later, at a September 2010 shareholders meeting, Phil Knight confirmed the number she received… “500 shares of stock, which she has never sold.”