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June 25, 2023

In 1971, Nike Hired a Student to Create Its Swoosh Logo for Just $35

Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight founded Nike on January 25, 1964, as Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS). Upon changing its name to Nike, Inc. on May 30, 1971, the company adopted the Swoosh as its official logo the same year. Carolyn Davidson, a student at Portland State University during the time Knight taught there, created the logo, attempting to convey motion in its design.

The logo designed by Davidson for Nike in 1971, for which she was paid $35. The emblem, with some later revisions, has remained as the company logo since then, becoming one of sport’s most iconic images.

Davidson started as a journalism major but switched to design after taking a design course to “fill an empty elective. She attained a bachelor’s in graphic design in 1971. It was here that she met Phil Knight, who was at the time teaching accounting classes at the university. Knight had overheard that Davidson was in search of extra funds for her to take oil painting classes, so he offered to pay Davidson to do some freelance work for his company. Knight offered to pay Davidson $2 per hour (equivalent to $14 per hour in today) for the work that she completed.

For seven years after its founding in 1964, BRS primarily imported Onitsuka Tiger brand running shoes from Japan. In 1971, Knight decided to launch his own brand of shoes, which would first appear as cleated shoes for football or soccer, and had a factory in Mexico ready to make the shoes. All Knight needed was a “stripe”—the industry term for a shoe logo—to go with his new brand, so he approached Davidson for design ideas. He had asked Davidson to make sure the stripe conveyed motion and did not look similar to the three stripes of Adidas. Over the ensuing weeks, she created at least a half-dozen marks and gathered them together to present to Knight, Bob Woodell and Jeff Johnson (two BRS executives) at the company’s home office, at the time located in Tigard, Oregon.

They ultimately selected the mark now known globally as the Swoosh, a shape inspired by the wings of the Greek goddess Nike. “Well, I don’t love it,” Knight told her, “but maybe it will grow on me.” Once the choice was made, Davidson asked for more time to refine the work she had done on the Swoosh; however, Knight stated that the company had production deadlines to meet and needed the logo as soon as possible. For her services, the company paid her $35 (equivalent to $253 in today) citing that she worked 17.5 hours on creating the Swoosh, although Davidson said that she is certain she worked more hours on the design. The Swoosh was officially trademarked on June 18, 1971 and in June 1972, at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Nike’s first official track shoe, the Nike Cortez, was released to the athletes sporting the new Swoosh.

Davidson continued working for Blue Ribbon Sports (it officially became Nike, Inc. in 1972) until the design demands of the growing company exceeded one person’s capacity. In 1976, the company hired its first external advertising agency, John Brown and Partners, and Davidson went on to work on other clients’ needs. In September 1983, Knight gave Davidson a golden Swoosh ring with an embedded diamond and 500 shares of Nike stock (which have since split into 32,000 shares) to express his gratitude. Of the gift, Davidson says, “this was something rather special for Phil to do, because I originally billed him and he paid that invoice.” Davidson went on to be known as “The Logo Lady.” She said that she is not a millionaire but lives comfortably. Davidson retired in 2000 and now engages in hobbies and volunteer work, including at the Ronald McDonald House at Legacy Emanuel Hospital & Health Center in Oregon.

The “Swoosh” logo. The emblem, with some later revisions, has remained as the company logo since then, becoming one of sport’s most iconic images.

The logo has undergone minor changes from its original design in 1971, today most commonly seen as a solo swoosh, although for much of its history, the logo incorporated the NIKE name alongside the Swoosh. Over the years, the orange and white color palette has traditionally been used on the logo, although most recently a solid black swoosh has gained significant popularity.

The Swoosh has appeared alongside the trademark “Just Do It” since 1988. Together, these two make up the core of Nike’s brand, and has been the face of the company, with many high-profile athletes and sports teams around the world sporting the logos.

The evolution of the Nike logo from 1971 until today.

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