When the Nike pioneers caught their first glimpse of the black, curvy checkmark, the graphic designer waited patiently for a reaction.
Nothing. Then, what else you got?
Carolyn Davidson, pushing back disappointment that spring day in 1971, pressed on. One by one, she presented a handful of sketches. But ultimately the three men circled back to the checkmark, her favorite.
“Well, I don’t love it,” Phil Knight said at the time, “but maybe it will grow on me.”
Today, on the cusp of its 40th year, the symbol borne of necessity and a chance meeting at Portland State is one of the most recognizable in the world — so much so that it can stand alone, without even naming the Oregon sports apparel empire it signifies.
“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.
Keenly aware of the difficulty of making something static appear fluid, she went to work. “I remember being in my studio working on it,” she said. “I drew a picture of a shoe and then I drew (logos) on tissue. I’d lay it over. And then I’d –” Davidson the makes a motion as if she were crumpling paper. “Because it has to look good on a shoe.”
She kept doodling, and two or three weeks later — again, there are no records of the date — Davidson presented her work at the Blue Ribbon offices in a sublet space in Plaza Southwest on Haines Road near Interstate 5 in Tigard.
Davidson recalls handing Knight her five or six finalists. It would be up to Knight, Jeff Johnson and Bob Woodell to make the call.
“It was clear real quick which one was acceptable and which was not acceptable,” said Woodell, who would go on to serve as Nike’s president in 1983-84.
After Knight made his choice, Davidson asked for time to refine her work. Not possible, Knight replied, citing production deadlines.
Carolyn Davidson was on her way to a degree in graphic design when she crossed paths with Phil Knight at Portland State University. These days she volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House next to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland.
“We needed it in a hurry,” Woodell said, “and Knight didn’t really want her to spend another week on cleaning it up.”
Davidson submitted her bill for $35 but doesn’t know how many hours she actually put into the project. She’s certain it was more than 17.5, a number that’s often referenced.
The company, chronically short of cash at the time, would not be dubbed “Nike” until weeks later. That’s when Johnson — Blue Ribbon’s first employee — suggested the name of the Greek goddess of victory as an alternative to Knight’s “Dimension 6.”
The U.S. Patent Office recorded the curvy checkmark on June 18, 1971.
“I like it,” Davidson says today of the Swoosh. “I really do. I never get tired of looking at it.”
She graduated from PSU in 1971 with a bachelor’s in graphic design and stayed on with Nike through 1975. The next year, she chose homemaking and resumed freelancing, which she would do for nearly three decades.
That same year, 1976, Nike hired its first full-time advertising agency, John Brown & Partners in Seattle.
On Dec. 2, 1980, Nike went public, trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Johnson became rich. Woodell became rich. Knight became really, really rich. Over the next three decades, the Oregon company would become a sporting goods powerhouse, with the Swoosh emblazoned seemingly everywhere: on shoes, T-shirts, jerseys, socks, pants, coats, hats, banners flapping outside Olympic stadiums, a football receiver’s gloves, a baseball catcher’s chest protector and more. Last year, the company, which now includes subsidiaries Cole Haan, Converse, Hurley International and Umbro Ltd., recorded more than $19 billion in sales.
Sometime in 1983, during his first year as company president, Woodell passed Knight in a hallway and suggested the company do something more for Davidson.
A short time later, Knight called Davidson’s husband. Woodell rang up Davidson.
“Carolyn,” Woodell told her on the phone, “Phil and I haven’t seen you forever. Why don’t you come out and we’ll all go to lunch.”
During a recent visit to Davidson’s eastside Portland home, a videotape recorded Sept. 15, 1983, is playing. It opens with a clearly surprised Davidson walking into Nike’s Washington County offices.
The lunch had turned into a party. For her.
A beaming Woodell, with other Nike employees nearby, greets her at the door. Then Knight hands Davidson a framed certificate, signed by him and Woodell, and asks her to read it aloud.
The certificate acknowledges her as the creator of The Swoosh and goes on to, humorously, list a variety of legal obligations for which she is now responsible.
Knight jokes at one point that Davidson is fortunate her $35 check did not bounce.
Then Woodell hands her a small box. It contains a gold ring shaped as her signature Swoosh, a small diamond near the curve.
In the video, Davidson starts crying. Then Woodell hands her an envelope containing a Nike stock certificate.
Now, standing in her living room, near her grandchildren’s toys and her sons’ childhood artwork and without a Swoosh in sight, the tears return.
–thanks to Allan Brettman of the Oregonian