By Randal C. Hill
The Nike “Swoosh” symbol is so well recognized worldwide that it can stand alone without naming the Oregon sports-apparel empire. The iconic logo was the brainchild of Carolyn Davidson, a now-comfortably-retired graphic designer—with the primary emphasis being on “comfortably.”
In 1969, Davidson met future business kingpin Phil Knight when she was a graphics design student at Portland State University and he was a part-time accounting instructor there. As Knight passed Carolyn in a hallway one day, he overheard her telling some friends that she wanted to take an oil painting class but couldn’t afford the paints. The next time Phil saw her, he said, “Excuse me, are you the one who can’t afford to take oil painting?”
Knight told Davidson he needed a part-time graphics artist to create charts and graphs for his business meetings. (Since 1964, Phil and partner Bill Bowerman had had a side job running Blue Ribbon Sports, the West Coast distributor for Tiger shoes from Japan’s Onitsuka Company.) Knight offered to pay her two dollars an hour for her work, and she readily accepted.
Carolyn completed all the projects Knight brought to her. Then, one day in 1971, Phil proposed something new—an assignment for a logo. Citing hassles from Onitsuka, he and Bowerman had decided to strike out on their own and offer a new line of cleated shoes. Their company would be called Nike, who in Greek mythology was the winged goddess of victory. A factory in Mexico was ready to begin shoe production, and Knight and Bowerman wanted a logo that conveyed motion and speed for their fledgling footwear.
Davidson figured she worked 17.5 hours on the project, so she submitted a bill for $35— equal to about $250 now—to Knight and showed him five potential designs, each drawn on tracing paper and laid over the side outline of a shoe. Phil didn’t really like any of the images, but he chose the wing-like Swoosh. “Well, I don’t love it,” he grumbled, “but maybe it will grow on me.”
Blue Ribbon Sports became Nike later that year, and the Swoosh was on its way to becoming one of the best-known images in the world, eventually being displayed on everything Nike, including shoes, socks, pants, hats, T-shirts, jerseys and coats.
Carolyn earned a PSU degree in graphic design and stayed with Nike through 1975, when she decided to freelance and do charity volunteer work from home.
In September 1983, Knight invited Davidson to have lunch at the Nike headquarters. That luncheon turned out to be a surprise party for her. After multibillionaire Knight told Carolyn that he was glad that his $35 check hadn’t bounced 12 years earlier, she was given a box of chocolate Swooshes, a Swoosh-shaped gold ring and 500 shares of Nike stock.
Over four decades and numerous stock splits later, Carolyn’s Nike holdings would now total about 32,000 shares and be worth around $4 million. Ms. Davidson has apparently never cashed in a single one of those shares.