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Carolyn Davidson – Creator Of The Iconic Nike Swoosh

By PDX People

PORTLAND, Ore. – In the 21st Century just about everyone is familiar with brand images like McDonald’s famous Golden Arches and Nike’s iconic swoosh logo but few people are aware that the creator of that logo, Carolyn Davidson calls Portland Oregon her home.

About Carolyn Davidson

Davidson designed the swoosh in 1971 while a graphic design student at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. She 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. Phil Knight, who was teaching an accounting class at the university, overheard Davidson say that she couldn’t afford oil painting supplies and asked her to do some work for what was then Blue Ribbon Sports, Inc. Knight asked Davidson to design a shoe stripe logo that “had something to do with movement”. She gave him five different designs, one of which was the “swoosh“.[4] Needing to choose a logo in order to meet looming production deadlines, Knight settled on the swoosh after rejecting four other designs by Davidson. At the time, he stated of the logo, “I don’t love it, but it will grow on me. For her services, the company paid her $35, which, if adjusted for inflation for 2015, would be the value equivalent of about $205.[5] Davidson continued working for Blue Ribbon Sports (it officially became Nike, Inc. in 1971) 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, nearly three years after the company went public, Knight invited Davidson to a company lunch. There, he presented her with a diamond ring engraved with the Swoosh and an envelope filled with 500 shares of Nike stock (which have since split into more shares). Of the gift, Davidson says, “this was something rather special for Phil to do, because I originally billed him and he paid that invoice.”[1] Davidson went on to be known as “The Logo Lady”. In 1995, Nike removed the word “Nike” from the logo; the “swoosh” now stands alone as the brand’s logo

Phil Knight Didn’t Love The Swoosh At First…

One of the most interesting pieces of history behind the Nike story is that Nike co-founder Phil Knight didn’t love the swoosh logo at first but was willing to go with it until it “grew on him”.

Little did Phil know that over 40 years later his swoosh logo would be know all around the world as athletes and people from all generations have come to use Nike products on a daily basis.

The Swoosh has become the living, vibrant symbol of the firm,” said Stephen A. Greyser, a Harvard Business School professor and sports management expert. “It is totally recognizable as the company, everywhere. It is global, without a doubt.”

No one thought so at the time of that meeting, particularly Davidson. In a rare interview, she reminisced about the process behind The Swoosh and the challenge of outdoing Adidas’s stripes, as well as the tenuous nature of Blue Ribbon Sports, Nike’s predecessor.

Davidson met Knight, then an assistant professor at PSU, in the late 1960s. He’d approached her in a hallway at the school’s graphic design department after overhearing her talking about why she wasn’t taking a particular class.

“Excuse me,” Davidson recalls him saying, “are you the one who can’t afford to take oil painting?”

“I kind of wondered who he was and how he knew that,” she said. “But then he introduced himself and said he was Phil Knight, and he was teaching accounting.”

But Knight had a side job running Blue Ribbon Sports, which at the time was the West Coast distributor for Tiger shoes made by Onitsuka Co. Ltd.  Knight told Davidson he needed a part-time graphic artist to make some charts and graphs in preparation for a meeting with Onitsuka executives visiting from Japan.

“I’ll pay you $2 an hour to make them. Are you interested?”

The success of that freelance gig landed others, continuing throughout her PSU years. She mostly produced charts and graphics until the day Knight gave her a new assignment — a logo.

Tensions with Onitsuka had developed, ultimately convincing him it was time to strike out on his own. He had a product — cleated shoes for football or soccer — and a factory in Guadalajara, Mexico, ready to make them. “He needed to get his own identity,” Davidson said.

Sometime in early 1971 — no one is exactly sure when — Knight told Davidson this shoe would need a “stripe” the industry term for a shoe logo. He told her it needed to convey motion and that it couldn’t look like those of Adidas, Puma or Onitsuka’s Tiger.

At the same time, Davidson said, it was clear that Knight was partial to the three stripes.

“Oh, he loved Adidas,” Davidson said. “That was part of my problem. He loved the Adidas stripes, he loved them. Well, when you really love something, try to get somebody to look over here” at something different.

The Power Of One Logo

Carolyn’s now famous swoosh logo is proof that anything is possible, especially for artists and graphic designers who often live far below the poverty line as they chase their creative passions.

Thanks to her work with Nike, she was able to retire in the year 2000 and now enjoys living a quite life in the Portland Oregon area but she hasn’t stopped staying busy, you can find her volunteering at various charities in the area and engaging in her favorite hobbies.

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