Behind The Brand: the Nike swoosh

By Woven Agency, Monday May 22, 2023
4 mins

Is there any more iconic logo than the Nike swoosh? A bitten apple and a pair of golden arches might have something to say on the matter, but there’s no doubting Nike’s tick firmly sits in the pantheon of branding. Simple, progressive, positive — it captures what the brand stands for and the promise it brings its audience.

Not a bad return for $35. But what’s the story behind the sigil? Our first Behind The Brand article explains all.

No brand encapsulates empowerment, performance and, more than anything, the desire to try than Nike. Whether couch potato or professional athlete, Nike are for everyone who wants to improve themselves, to be better than they were yesterday. And for decades they’ve communicated this singular proposition in ways that have seen them stitched into our culture.

But in 1971, Nike was a relatively unknown brand struggling for survival. Founded in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports by Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, the brand that would eventually conquer the world scraped by distributing shoes for the Japanese company, Onitsuka Tiger.

However, when the partnership between Blue Ribbon and Onitsuka ended in 1971, the company was forced to rethink, rebrand and create its own line of shoes.

Enter Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student at Portland State University. Carolyn was approached by Phil Knight to design a logo for his new line of shoes.

Knight was looking for a logo defined by innovation, performance and excellence. Davidson was asked to create several designs for Knight to choose from, with her initial designs including a variety of different elements, including wings, stars and other shapes. 

“I don’t love it, but it will grow on me.”

Nike founder Phil Knight’s first reaction to the Nike swoosh

With none of these initial designs resonating with Knight, Davidson got back to work, eventually creating the design that would become the Nike swoosh — a simple, elegant sigil that features a curved check mark shape.

Davidson’s design wasn’t an instant hit with Knight, who was unsure about its simplicity. He apparently said “I don’t love it, but it will grow on me.”

According to Davidson, the inspiration for the swoosh came from a variety of different sources. She was inspired by the winged Victory statue, the Nike of Samothrace, in the Louvre, as well as by the idea of movement and speed.

Davidson was paid $2 per hour to create the logo; having spent over 17 hours on the design, the total charged to Knight was $35 — about $260 in today’s money.

The Nike swoosh made its debut in 1972 on the Nike Cortez, a classic running shoe that became popular with runners and athletes around the world.

The logo was prominently displayed on the shoes worn by legendary runners like Steve Prefontaine and Joan Benoit, who both became Nike-sponsored athletes in the 1970s and 1980s.

After the success of the Nike swoosh, Davidson continued to work as a graphic designer and eventually went on to teach design at Portland State University. In 1983, Knight surprised Davidson with a diamond and gold swoosh ring, a cheque for $35 — the original amount that she’d been paid for her work on the logo — and 500 shares in the company.

According to Knight himself, Davidson has never sold these shares and they’re now worth over a million dollars. Not bad for 17 hours’ work.

The evolution of the Nike logo

As the Nike’s fame grew, Davidson became a sought-after speaker and consultant, and she continued to work as a designer and educator. In 1995, she was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, and in 2015 was awarded the AIGA Medal — one of the highest honours in the design world.

The Nike swoosh is one of the most recognisable logos ever created, and although it’s undergone a few changes and modifications its core design remains the same: a simple, powerful visualisation of movement and purpose that sums up the brand’s proposition as clearly today as it did back then.

Carolyn Davidson’s contribution to the Nike brand can’t be overstated. Her Nike swoosh is an iconic symbol of excellence and determination and continues to inspire athletes — and designers — around the world.