The Daily Heller: The Ageless Swoosh Celebrates Its 50th Jubilee

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In the Summer of 2011, I was sent a review copy of a 40th-anniversary publication homage to the firmly entrenched, highly valued and immensely collectable Nike brand. Hard to believe there was a time when Nike did not exist. As a kid I mostly wore Keds blues (but sometimes, uncle Harry Cohen—the manager of A.S. Beck on 34th Street—would sell my mom, at wholesale of course, a pair of Converse High Tops for my birthday). Yesterday morning I looked at the front page of the The New York Times‘ Style section and was surprised to learn Nike is celebrating its 50-year jubilee of just doing it. I jumped out of my recliner, ran to the box with a long-dormant external hard drive and retrieved the story I wrote for PRINT that short decade ago—which appears below. Not much has changed, except now I wear New Balance.

(Aug. 3, 2011)

Funny how 40 years swoosh by: June 1971 is the date the Nike Swoosh was launched. It was designed by Carolyn Davidson for $35—a “Bargain Brand,” as the Dept. of Nike Archives notes in its extraordinarily understated tabloid-sized newsprint history of the mark (produced for the “benefit of Nike employees”). What others might take an entire book (and many trees) to convey—explaining the origin and history of the Swoosh logo—the “DNA” accomplished in a mere 28 pages.

Included are commentaries by designers, design critics and former employees, and recollections by Phil Knight, co-founder of Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), which evolved into Nike.

The origin of the mark goes like this: Knight wanted to differentiate BRS’ custom product from the ones they were importing from Onitsuka in Japan: “… so Knight turned to a graphic design student he met at Portland State University two years earlier.” One day in 1969, the student, Davidson, was approached by Knight and offered $2 per hour “to make charts and graphics” for his business. For the next two years Davidson managed the design work on BRS. “Then one day Phil asked me if I wanted to work on a shoe stripe,” Davidson recalled. The only advice she received was to “make the stripe supportive of the shoe.” Davidson came up with half a dozen options. None of the options “captivated anyone,” so it came down to “which was the least awful.”

Well, the rest is history. And the Swoosh emerged from “the stripe” and is one of the most recognized logos in the world.