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The $35 Nike Logo and the Woman Who Designed It

In reality, the Nike Swoosh was designed by graphic designer Carolyn Davidson in 1971. Her invoice total for this important piece of design history? $35.

Creative Market March 31, 2021 · 3 min read
The Nike Swoosh: It is one of the most recognizable logos in the world. You might imagine that an image so iconic would have been designed by an important advertising or branding firm that was paid millions to come up with the advertising scheme. But you’d be wrong if you thought that. In reality, the Nike Swoosh was designed by graphic designer Carolyn Davidson in 1971. Her invoice total for this important piece of design history? $35.

How did the Nike Swoosh come to be?

nikeswoosh-1 Source: Nike In 1971, Carolyn Davidson was a graphic design student at Portland State University. In 1969, she met Phil Knight, then-assistant professor at PSU who would go on to found Blue Ribbon Sports, and, in turn, Nike. Knight knew Davidson was in search of extra funds to take oil painting classes, so he asked Davidson to help him out on some projects at a rate of $2 an hour. Once Knight came up with the idea to strike out on his own and create his own brand of athletic shoes, he asked Davidson to help him come up with a stripe—or an image that could go on the side of the shoe—as a side job. Davidson came up with the Nike Swoosh, a check mark shape that is fluid and indicates movement and speed. The image also resembles a wing and hinted at the brand name, Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory. After some work on the logo, Davidson then handed the design over to Knight for a mere $35. Knight launched his athletic shoe brand with the swoosh on the side (despite initially saying he didn’t love the logo), and it has since become one of the most famous athletic shoe and gear brands of all time.

Who is Carolyn Davidson?

At the time she designed the Nike Swoosh, Davidson was a graphic design student looking for extra money. When she produced the Swoosh, Knight accepted the design and Davidson continued to design for Nike until 1975. Once she graduated from school, Davidson decided to be a work from home as a freelance designer, which she continued to do for about 30 years. nikeswoosh-3 Photo credit: Jon Freeman

Why was she only paid $35 for her work?

Davidson maintains that she doesn’t know how long she worked on the Nike Swoosh, but that she only charged Knight for 17.5 hours of work—which ended up in a $35 paycheck. While she didn’t profit immediately from her work on the Swoosh, the designer was eventually celebrated by the company when they threw a party in her honor. She was also given a generous amount of stock in the company (estimated to be worth upwards of $1,000,000), as well as a diamond and gold ring featuring the Swoosh design.

Small Job, Big Payoff

While Davidson was initially only paid $35 for her design for Nike, the success of the Swoosh ultimately landed her a job for 4 years, much more freelance work—and, eventually, $1 million. Davidson’s work is a good example of how every connection in the design world can be important, and how little jobs and efforts can ultimately pay off in very big ways.
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  • Great story... I didn't know she was later taken care of. 7 years ago
  • She deserves a lot more than $1M. 7 years ago
  • I love reading this! 7 years ago
  • nice ;) 7 years ago
  • Great story thanks for sharing! We are truly all connected! 7 years ago
  • Amazing story - one which will deservedly go down in history. 7 years ago
  • Great story. The issue many designers are facing is that companies often use this story as an excuse to pay peanuts. 7 years ago
  • Amazing story. Always keep working hard and good things will come! 7 years ago
  • great story ! :) 7 years ago
  • Such an inspiring & motivating post ! 7 years ago
  • You forgot to factor in inflation. In '69, $ 2 was worth $ 13.22 today, so, that student job was equivalent to a $ 13.22/hour salary. How much are interns paid nowadays? In '71, $ 35 was worth $ 208 today, which is around, or more, than what some « winning » designers make through 99designs sites and such. This story is anything but inspirational. It is the type of story that happen in less than 1 in a million. If company getting rich after using designs at rock bottom prices by a student (or professional) were really a thing, we'd here more of it and not rehash that same old freak accident. 7 years ago
  • [@Jean-Sébastien Dussault](user:544454) - To be honest, I wasn't really thinking that deeply into it, I'm talking on the fact that at the time of her creating this logo, she probably had no idea how iconic it was to become over the next 'x' amount of years. 7 years ago
  • She surely didn't, nor did Knight. In fact, the Swoosh did not have *that* much success at the time, at least, far from the idea we have of it today, so it's not really the base of why she was hired afterwards. Connexion from before, doing a good job, nice person to work with? Yes, but not because of the logo success as presented in the article. There were no signs of the brand success while she was working, when she left, or even when going public 7 years later, or at least, not more than a company doing normally well. In fact, when Knight gave her stock in '83, which incidentally came after an uproar from the design/advertising community on how little she'd been paid at the time the company went public, his words were along « I don't know if that'll be really worth something someday ». Well, it was worth the equivalent of 19,000 in today's dollars, so it still was a nice gesture, though, but IPO's are always risky. The logo did the job of identifying the company (being on every shoes helps), that it did very well, but its celebrity and « iconisation » was much more the job of the branding by Wieden & Kennedy in '88, which has really put Nike on the map, where the company jumped from having a 1/6th of the market to nearly half. So, she's lucky that Nike finally decided to put money behind their brand, probably at an hourly fee nearing the value of what they paid for the logo. 7 years ago
  • Very inspiring 7 years ago
  • We all hope some design from the past will make us a lot in the future. Fat chance. 7 years ago
  • wow, very nice ,exciting story! 7 years ago
  • Great. For a businessman who earnestly works to make his business successful, logo design and banner ads are indispensable. 7 years ago
  • This is more a lesson of the importance of licensing agreements. 6 years ago
  • Very interesting story! 6 years ago
  • She was a student at the time. When I was in school in the mid-90s, $200 was a nice chunk of change. She was paid fairly for what has become one of the most ubiquitous corporate logos the world over, and is lucky that the company who hired her understands and respects the importance of good design in their product and puts their money behind it. 6 years ago
  • Very inspiring! 4 years ago