You can probably draw Nike’s hugely popular logo with your eyes closed: the swoosh is one of the most recognisable logos in the world, with an estimated value in 2015 of $19 billion. The secret of its effectiveness? Its simplicity and expert branding.
In this article, we’ll run through the history of Nike and the evolution of a logo designed to win.
How Nike was founded: the origins of a legend
William Jay Bowerman, better known as Bill, an athletics coach, and Phil Knight, a first-year undergraduate and middle-distance runner, first met in 1957 at the University of Oregon. Little did they know that this encounter would change their lives forever and give rise to an incredibly successful business venture.
In 1963, Phil Knight founded Blue Ribbon Sports, a business selling Japanese Onitsuka Tiger trainers in the USA. The following year he put his first 300 pairs of shoes on sale, which were shipped from the Blue Ribbon Sports warehouse (AKA his parents’ laundry room!).
In 1964, Bill Bowerman started working with Knight, and a year later they hired Jeff Johnson, Knight’s college racing rival, as their first employee. Signs of the brand’s future epic status started to appear: in 1965 Nike, the winged goddess of victory, appeared in a dream to Johnson. Was it an epiphany or a premonition? The two business partners decided to take a gamble on the name (perhaps thinking Just do it!) and let the goddess guide them: in 1971 the business changed its name to Nike. Definitely a smart move.
After that, it wasn’t long until Nike shoes were appearing on the feet of top Olympic athletes, the shoes’ incredible performance helping them set new world records and win gold medals. In 1980 they were the bestselling trainers in the USA, and the brand was heading towards being the ‘top of mind’ sportswear brand.
Where did the Nike logo come from and what does it mean?
The company’s very first logo – an acronym featuring the intertwined letters BRS – was created in 1964. We’re starting here not just because the Blue Ribbon Sports era was an important chapter in the company’s history, but also because this first logo contains some distinctive traits that, consciously or not, would remain in Nike’s future brand identity: the dynamic appearance of the slanted letters, and the striving for monumentality.
1964 LOGO IMAGE
In 1971, the business needed a new logo to go with its new name. Phil Knight was working as an accounting professor at Portland State University, where he met Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student. He entrusted the design of the Nike logo to her, and she produced around a dozen images (in 18 hours of work), but none of the logos really excited Knight: he was forced to choose ‘the least bad option’, hoping he would come to appreciate it in time. The swoosh was a stylised version of the goddess Nike’s wing, and its shape and slanted design gave it a sense of speed and dynamism.
Fun fact: Carolyn Davidson was paid just $35 for her drawings. However, Nike hired her in 1983, and she received 500 shares in the company worth $150 (today they are worth around $1,286 per share).
The logo was given a major makeover in 1978, with the stylish Futura Bold replacing the cursive serif font. The logo became more geometric, solid and monumental, with slightly sloping letters and the ‘E’ merging with the tail of the swoosh. The kerning is rather interesting: if you look carefully, you’ll see that the spacing varies slightly between the letters.
Nike’s golden age began in the 1980s. During these years it forged partnerships with top athletes like Michael Jordan and introduced the tagline ‘Just Do It’, which would accompany all the business’ biggest successes. Apparently the slogan was inspired by the words spoken by death row inmate Gary Gilmore before his execution: ‘Let’s do it’.
In 1985, the logo was put into a square.
In 1995 the Nike swoosh was famous enough it could be recognised without the brand name next to it. It has remained the brand’s main identifying feature ever since.
Simple, no-fuss and instantly recognisable, the Nike logo is a unique symbol that successfully conveys the brand’s entire essence and identity. It is a winning design, one which every creative should take note of when tasked with producing a company logo.