The Nike Swoosh is ubiquitous… it’s on sneakers, hats, shirts, socks, jackets, bags, pants, shorts, jog bras, sweatbands, sports gear and equipment, etc.; it’s worn and endorsed by world class athletes and celebrities; it’s recognized across cultures around the globe and requires no translation between languages. Guess that’s why Nike’s annual sales topped $20 billion in 2011. You’d think that something with this kind of visual presence and power must have taken years to develop by a team of branding experts… right? Wrong! The renowned, symbolic “Swoosh” was designed 41 years ago by Woman You Should Know Carolyn Davidson while she was a graphic design student at Portland State University. In 17.5 hours at a pay rate of $2/hr, Carolyn earned herself a measly $35 for creating what would become one of the world’s most recognized logos. This is an unbelievable “timing is everything in life” story.
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 job he took to supplement the modest income he made running Blue Ribbon Sports, Inc. – a small, fledgling company that served as a West Coast distributor of Japanese-made 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 mention that she couldn’t afford to take oil painting. So, he chimed in and offered to pay her $2 an hour 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 BRS meetings with executives visiting from Japan. But Phil, who was ready to strike out on his own with a brand of 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 an interview last year, Carolyn told OregonLive.com 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. Her presentation closed with them asking “what else you got?” But, since time was short, all three men were willing to accept the “checkmark” she created, which just happened to be her favorite too. Once the choice was made Phil did declare, “Well, I don’t love it, but maybe it will grow on me”. Those are some famous last words, huh? Again, because they needed it so quickly, Carolyn didn’t even have any time to refine or clean-up her design. The rest, as they say, is history…
In 1972, the company first began selling shoes with 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 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. In additional to presenting her with a gold ring in the shape of her Swoosh, complete with a small diamond, they also gave her a certificate of appreciation and an undisclosed amount of shares of Nike stock. However, years later, at a September 2010 shareholders meeting, Phil Knight announced that in 1983 Carolyn was given “500 shares of stock, which she has never sold, and is worth close to $1 million this day.”
While Carolyn maintains she is not a millionaire today, the married mother of two grown sons and a proud grandmother, lives comfortably and spends much of her time volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in Portland where she still lives.
We think this is SUCH a cool story. Be sure to think of Carolyn next time you slip on any of your Nike gear… we know you have something with her Swoosh on it.