Roots of a swoosh trace back to PSU

“Is it true that the Nike logo was designed by a PSU grad?”

Take a look down at your feet. Chances are pretty good that you’ve got some Nike kicks on. If you don’t, that’s okay, just go along with me for a second and pretend that you do. Have you ever wondered where that iconic swoosh logo came from? The story is an interesting one that traces back to Portland State roots.

In 1971, back in the early days of the company, Nike was known as Blue Ribbon Sports. Phil Knight, co-founder of Blue Ribbon and perennial financial supporter of the University of Oregon, was teaching accounting part time at PSU. His company was looking into expanding its market beyond simply distributing Japanese shoes on the West Coast, and to do so, needed to be rebranded.

Knight enlisted graphic design student Carolyn Davidson to create potential logos. He had overheard that she wasn’t able to afford to pay for an art class, and offered her the job at the rate of $2 an hour.

Davidson drew up several designs, setting out to do something that didn’t simply recreate the famous Adidas stripes. When she presented the designs to Knight, he eventually settled on a checkmark logo. He is reported to have said “I don’t love it, but I think it will grow on me.”

The design Knight finally settled on featured the word Nike running through the swoosh. It remained the company’s brand until 1978 when the logo was retooled. The checkmark got a little tighter and the word “Nike” was moved to hover above the logo in all caps. The logo changed one last time in 1995 when the lettering was dropped and the swoosh mark was registered as the official brand identity of Nike, Inc.

For her work designing what would become the most recognizable symbol in all of athletics, and potentially one of the most recognizable in the world, Davidson was paid $35. Just weeks after her design was adopted, BRS officially rebranded as Nike. Davidson got her degree in graphic design from PSU in 1971 but stuck around to work for Nike for a few years. She resigned in 1975 to commit to freelance work and to spend more time at home. Nike hired a full-time ad agency in 1976.

Before you get too upset about Davidson only being paid $35 for a logo that has reached global iconic status, hold on just a second. She was hired and paid for designing the logo of a small company (at the time). Even better, she was rewarded handsomely with Nike stocks in 1983. did the math back in 2011 and estimated the 500 shares of stock she was gifted from Knight were then worth $643,035. (Which really isn’t too bad for some work you did in college for a small company.)

The logo has evolved somewhat since then, but the heart is still in Davidson’s design. So next time you go to lace up your shoes, remember: she is proof that a Viking can literally make its mark on the world.

Do you have questions for Professor Sport Ball? Email [email protected]