Nike had the Stripe before anyone was calling it the Swoosh. And the Swoosh, with its classic startup tale of formation, served more as a roadmap for shoe designers than a hard and fast rule. As we see new Nike designs come to the market ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Swoosh, such as the READYMADE x Nike Blazer—complete with a funky Swoosh adornment—and the original Swoosh design play prominently across the new Virgil Abloh Icons book, it harkens to the early days of Nike when designers could tell who crafted a shoe simply based on the shape of the Swoosh. Nowadays the Swoosh represents all things Nike. It stands alone as a mark, signifying both brand and culture. The Swoosh represents more than just a logo.
Originally named Blue Ribbon Sports, Phil Knight’s newly dubbed Nike in 1971 needed an official mark. So, Knight, then an accounting instructor at the downtown Portland State University, turned to an eager graphic design student, Carolyn Davidson, to create a logo for a brand named after the Greek goddess of victory.
Davidson, earning $2 per hour, spent 17.5 hours working on the project, according to Nike history, for a total bill of $35, all with the goal of presenting motion through the Stripe. The goddess served as inspiration. With Nike the goddess, not the brand, known for her flight and wingspan in Greek mythology, Davidson crafted curved lines reminiscent of a wing, fashioning a “checkmark” design while testing the look by overlaying tissue paper with logos atop shoes.
While Davidson offered up six variations of the new mark to Knight and executives Bob Woodell and Jeff Johnson, it was the curved checkmark with the wordmark “Nike” in a hand-drawn script across it that led the pack, even if Knight said at the time he wasn’t in love with the design. That quickly changed, though, as the logo became the official mark of Nike via the US Patent Office on June 18, 1971. The mark derived its name, the Swoosh, thanks to the “whoosh” sound made by the shoes when running.
Michael Raisch, now a senior designer at the NFL, says the Nike mark has a simplistic nature about it that brands today crave.
“It was aerodynamic in its shape, gesture, and boldness,” he says. “It is absolutely effective and so tidy and clean. I think that is what is so effective about it, and it survived the ages.”
The Swoosh made its consumer debut on the Nike Cleat, one of the first-ever shoes from the brand, and appeared on the famed Nike Waffle Racer at the US Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, but consumers couldn’t get their hands on that model until 1973. The Nike Cortez, produced in time for the Mexico Olympics in 1972, was an early adopter of the Swoosh. The birth of Nike Basketball in 1972 via the Bruin featured the fresh logo and the first high-top Nike shoe adorned with the Swoosh was the Nike Blazer in 1973. While “warm red” quickly became the color of choice on the official logo—not the black we often see now—the on-shoe Swoosh was meant to mix colors for maximum visual identity.
Todd Radom, a veteran sports logo designer who has created marks for countless Super Bowls, NBA events, World Series events, and teams across every level of professional sports, says that while Nike’s Swoosh isn’t necessarily the perfect logo—the extreme horizontality defies best practices in certain respects—half a century after its creation, it has become one of a select handful of instantly recognizable marks, known the world over.
Davidson’s original 1971 Stripe-to-Swoosh design with script lettering held steady as the official mark of Nike, but in early days designers used it more as a template than a set design.
The Davidson design held steady until a 1976 shift when the font moved to Futura and the lettering was officially dropped fully in 1995. The company switched the warm red to orange, the color of the brand today.
“It was a trendsetter,” Radom says. “Nike dropped the bold Futura italic letterforms that locked up with the Swoosh back in the mid-’90s, a bold statement that really led the way toward a bunch of really prominent consumer brands that eschew wording and even proprietary color in favor of a simple icon.”
Raisch says that if you look at other logos created in 1971—whether Starbucks’ original Siren or even PBS—they look like they were created in 1971 and have undergone tweaks over the past 50 years to simplify. “How did the Nike Swoosh survive? It is just in its sheer stark simplicity,” Raisch says. “It just wasn’t from the times and therefore was timeless.”
While legal and marketing reasons have kept the modern-day Swoosh generally consistent across Nike footwear, special-edition opportunities, such as the READYMADE collaboration—we may see more O.G. Swoosh play later in 2021 as Nike celebrates the Swoosh anniversary—offer the chance to play with design and coloring. In this case, the Swoosh takes on a highly thinned appearance at either end, but has a plump middle, giving this version of the Blazer a truly singular take on an enduring symbol of footwear.