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Carolyn Davidson: Fearless Icon-Maker

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Designed the Nike swoosh

Good things in Carolyn Davidson's life seem to come along by chance. She first enrolled in Willamette University, but switched to Portland State to be close to home. She started as a journalism major, but took a design course to "fill an empty elective."

It all led to a fateful hallway meeting in 1971, when she and another student were working on a drawing assignment. She had just told her classmate she couldn't take an oil painting class because the fees were too high. A few minutes later, Davidson recalls, "a tall man in a suit walked up and said, 'Are you the one who can't afford to take oil painting?'"

The well-dressed man was Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who at the time was a little-known start-up entrepreneur teaching a PSU accounting course to help make ends meet. Knight was also working with a Japanese footwear company and he needed someone to produce some nice-looking charts and graphs to show some executives who were coming from Japan. He gave Davidson the job. That led to more work with Knight and his fledgling company, Blue Ribbon Sports.

Pleased with past results, Knight summoned Davidson to a meeting. He had been working with University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman to develop a new running shoe—and a new company.

"Then every designer's dream job came in," Davidson says. "He said, 'Would you like to design a shoe stripe?' I didn't hesitate and as luck would have it, I didn't have any competition."

Knight, Davidson said, really liked the three-band logo of Adidas and she knew the stripe had to look entirely different. It would be a tough sell. He gave her only one criterion:

"He just wanted it to look like speed."

It was no easy task. Davidson started drawing some possibilities, which she sketched on tissue paper and put up against a shoe to see how each looked. Time was running out; boxes were going to be printed. She had several designs, which she delivered to Knight who had convened a group to discuss the choices. Knight would make the final decision. His response was—disappointing.

"Well, I don't love it, but maybe it will grow on me."

It was, of course, the curved, swooping mark that came to be called the Nike "swoosh" and is now one of the most identifiable commercial logos in the world. Davidson hadn't taken any classes in the business side of graphics. She billed Knight $35 for her work.

Davidson worked with Nike for about six years—they were getting so large, they needed full-scale advertising agencies. A few years after she left, Davidson was invited to meet at Nike and go out to lunch. When she arrived, she was treated to a surprise reception and given an undisclosed amount of Nike stock.

Nearly 45 years later, the Nike swoosh lives on exactly the way Davidson drew it. When asked how she feels about being the one who came up with a brand that appears on millions of shoes, t-shirts, NFL and college football jerseys, ad campaigns and storefronts, she answers with typical understatement:

"Amazing, isn't it?"

Read more fearless stories.