The Nike logo, known as “the Swoosh,” is one of the most recognized graphics in the world. This simple, powerful design has graced the company’s shoes and advertisements for more than 30 years.
First Names and Logos
When Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman founded their sneaker company in 1964, they named it Blue Ribbon Sports. The name was fine, but it didn’t really fit a company that was quickly establishing itself as a trendsetter for athletic shoes.
The hunt for the right name proved elusive, however. Initially, Knight suggested they call it Dimension 6, based on the multiple dimensions they used to create their high-performing shoes.
In 1971, a new employee suggested the name Nike. Knight and Bowerman agreed it was the perfect fit.
In Greek mythology, Nike was the goddess of power, speed and victory. Greek soldiers invoked her name when they went into battle. The image of strength and victory was appropriate for a shoe that promised to propel its wearers to victory in sports.
In classical paintings and sculpture, Nike appears as a strong, slender young woman who typically carries a palm frond or a blade. In some paintings, she carries the torch of Hermes in her role as the messenger of victory.
Her most outstanding feature, however, is her huge, curved wings. That’s where the designer of the Nike logo got her inspiration.
The Logo Designer
In 1971, Carolyn Davidson was a graduate student at Portland State University. Phil Knight was an assistant professor there who had a struggling shoe company. After overhearing Davidson say she couldn’t afford her art supplies, Knight offered her a part-time job as a graphic designer. He offered Davidson $2.00 an hour.
Knight asked Davidson to prepare charts and other business graphics. He also asked her to design a new logo for the shoes. Knight liked the simple stripe design his competitor Adidas used, and he wanted something similarly striking.
Besides her salary, he paid her a $35 freelance fee to design the logo. In today’s dollars, that would be around $200. As a struggling graduate student, Davidson was happy to get it.
Davidson took immediate inspiration from the long, sweeping wings that appeared on every depiction of the goddess Nike. She designed a sleek, streamlined version of a curved wing.
She drew the sweep at a slant to signify fast forward movement. She then placed the swoosh directly above the name Nike in a script font. It was a simple, bold design that set Nike apart from its competitors.
Early Use of the Swoosh
Initially, Knight didn’t like the design. Fortunately, his partners and employees urged him to use it. The company placed the swoosh on the shoes and later added it to their advertising.
Davidson continued working as a graphic designer for Nike for four years before beginning a freelance design career. As the creator of one of the world’s best-known logos, she could probably charge a lot more than $35 for her work.
Read more: Our guide on trademarking a logo.
The logo and an aggressive marketing campaign were key to Nike’s success. Nike soon began beating out its chief competitors. As the 1970s ended, the company could hardly keep up with the demand for its shoes.
Retailers, however, reported one problem with the shoes in their stores. Customers couldn’t read the name of the company because it was in script. Many people thought the name was “Mike.”
In 1978, a new advertising agency revamped the name entirely. The swoosh remained, but the name Nike now appeared in bold capital letters and a modern font. The name was still slanted to reflect the forward movement of the swoosh.
Floating on Air
In 1984, Nike entered into an endorsement contract with basketball great Michael Jordan. This is one of the best-known and most successful celebrity partnerships in the history of marketing. It solidified Nike’s image as an elite shoe, and it made Jordan a household name among people who didn’t follow sports.
Nike created an entire new line of shoes named the “Air Jordans.” To go with the campaign and the shoes, Nike introduced a new logo. It featured the silhouette of Jordan holding a basketball as he leaps into the air.
In the Red
In 1985, the Nike logo went through a major color change. Instead of the simple black and white design, it was now a bright red rectangle with the word Nike in the middle. That design only lasted about two years, however, and the company returned to the basic black and white color scheme.
Just Do It
In 1988, Nike coined the slogan, “Just Do It.” It is one of the most famous advertising slogans ever created.
Advertising for Nike would sometimes use the slogan over a picture of the swoosh. People didn’t need to see the name Nike to know what the slogan meant. It was a powerful indicator of how much recognition Nike and its symbols had attained.
The Swoosh Stands Alone
In 1995, Nike stopped using its name on its logo. The company’s swoosh symbol is so well known that the name is no longer necessary.
Later Recognition for the Designer
When the company went public in 1983, Knight and the other Nike executives held a party to celebrate. During the festivities, Knight recognized Davidson for creating the logo that helped put Nike on the map. He gave Davidson a diamond ring shaped like the swoosh and 500 shares of the company stock.
Flying To Victory
The Nike logo was created by a starving artist for a struggling shoe company. Decades later, it is an enduring symbol of victory.