University Student Designed Nike Logo to Pay for School

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Few logos are more recognizable than the Nike swoosh.

Other than the golden arches and Coke’s sexy cursive no other logo is burned so deeply into our collective memory.



 Without even trying, Nike’s logo conjures up images of:

  • Speed
  • Agility
  • Flying through the air like Michael Jordan in Space Jam.
Fly like an Eagle, MJ!

But where did it come from? And how did a seemingly simple design become one of the most successful logos in the history of capitalism? The Nike swoosh’s origin story has slowly turned into the well-known tale of a little logo that could.


1971: The Swoosh is Born

The logo sitting atop a 16 billion-dollar corporation had much humbler beginnings. Despite its current iconic status, the swoosh was initially bought for a measly flat rate of $35. That’s thirty-five US dollars. Even 45 years ago, $35 for a company’s main logo was a bargain. Today, that equals to $208, which any graphic designer in North America can tell you is basically a friend rate.

Carolyn Davidson: Student by Day, Graphic Artist Also by Day

Carolyn Davidson designed the Nike swoosh in 1971. She was a Portland State University student looking for extra cash to help pay for oil painting classes. Phil Knight, a professor at the university and Nike co-founder, heard Davidson mention she needed the money as he passed her in the hallway. He hired her at $2/hour to work on a few designs for his side business that eventually became Nike.

The logo took all of seventeen hours to create. You’re likely thinking, well $2 an hour was probably a decent wage back then! But considering the minimum hourly wage in Oregon was $1.25, that meant Davidson worked the equivalent of a Starbucks barista’s wage to create a symbol as powerful as religious iconography.

Nike, Goddess of Victory: Inspiration behind the logo


Nike: Goddess of Victory and Air Jordans

So how was the design conceived? Nike was named after the Greek Goddess of victory who sported an impressive pair of gossamer wings and was known to parade around battlefields, celebrating and booyeahing winning soldiers. Davidson wanted to portray the spirit of Nike in a simple, yet elegant design that would also fit on the side of a shoe.



And what better way to combine the image of the goddess and the very thing she represented then by transforming a check mark (which is the universal symbol for victory on any term paper) into a minimalist outline of a wing in flight. Kudos to Davidson for combining both the physical and spiritual embodiment of a primordial deity into a design that also fits perfectly onto the side of a running shoe.



If Only Davidson Had Licensed Her Logo

It’s obvious that Carolyn Davidson went above and beyond anyone’s expectations, especially since at the time she presented the swoosh to Nike, the reception was lukewarm at best. Obviously, they learned to love it. Many opportunists reading this might be shaking their heads at Davidson’s missed chance to strike it rich by licensing the logo instead.

But this story has a much happier ending than other famous logo stories. For instance, in a case of epic short-sightedness, the original creator of the iconic smiley face, Harvey Ball, never licensed his design. Someone else snatched it away and made hundreds of millions of dollars, none of which was ever given back to its original designer.

Nike Never Forgets its Friends!



Davidson worked for Nike for years before leaving to pursue freelance work. Nike also awarded her with a swoosh-shaped gold and diamond ring and 500 shares in the company. At the time, the sum value was approximately $150, which essentially made the whole thing a sweet gesture. But in 2011, those 500 shares were worth $643k! Needless to say, she’s doing just fine, thank you very much!

Carolyn Davidson’s Legacy

Carolyn Davidson’s story is a collective victory for all us lowly artists and designers who constantly fight for fair pay for our work and for others to see the intrinsic value in what we offer a company. If it wasn’t for Davidson’s design, who knows what the fate of Nike would be?


Published by Genevieve Morrison