As arguably the most talented player in college basketball, Zion Williamson is used to making headlines—just not the kind he made last month. On Feb. 21, as the Duke forward played in the first minute of the North Carolina game, a sudden “pop” brought Williamson to the floor, clutching his knee in agony.
“The world stopped turning on its axis briefly on Wednesday night,” Sports Illustrated reported, “when Duke star Zion Williamson’s shoe exploded.”
It wasn’t just any shoe, of course. As TV cameras zoomed in, millions saw the 18-year-old’s foot jutting out of the torn sneaker—a shredded upper of white polyester, punctuated by the Nike Swoosh. Williamson, it transpired, got away with only a sprain. Nike took a bigger hit: The following morning $1.12 billion had vanished from its stock price.
Odds are that Nike will be just fine, too. But the moment wasn’t just a lesson in the perils of product endorsement; it was a singular example of how a famous logo instantly signifies, for better or worse, the brand it represents.
And there are few brand logos more instantly recognizable than the Nike Swoosh. For 48 years now, it’s embodied what successful branding looks like.
“The Swoosh is effective for Nike’s brand because it immediately communicates some of the brand’s core values,” observed Taylor Getler, business development associate at branding agency Works Design Group. “The design is inherently strong, dynamic and indicates motion, which alludes to athleticism and physical movement. It also helps that it’s so simple.”
How these forces came together in a single logo owes itself to equal parts brand vision, youthful energy—and a tight deadline.
In 1971, Carolyn Davidson was a graphic design student at Portland State University when an accounting instructor named Phil Knight asked her to take on a freelance assignment. Knight had a company called Blue Ribbon Sports that, after years of importing Onitsuka Tiger athletic shoes from Japan, was striking out with its own shoe. A factory in Mexico was already turning out Knight’s first run, and he needed a logo in a hurry.
Knight’s new company would be called Nike, and some have argued that the logo Davidson drew evoked the wing of the mythological Nike, goddess of victory. But Davidson has since told her alumni newsletter that Knight “wanted [the logo] to look like movement, and that’s basically it.”
Davidson doodled for weeks—conveying speed with a static symbol isn’t easy—and produced the Swoosh along with several other designs. Knight choose the Swoosh, if reluctantly. “I don’t love it,” he reportedly said, “but it will grow on me.”
Then he paid her the agreed-upon $35 for her time and trouble. (Don’t worry, it all worked out—see below.)
The doodle, apparently, did grow on Knight: Nike trademarked the Swoosh in June 1971. (In 1994, it also trademarked the word Swoosh.) And, as we know, Nike itself grew, too. At the time of its 1980 IPO, Nike shares sold for 18 cents. Today, Nike’s market cap stands at close to $135 billion.
Which raises the issue of what role, if any, the Swoosh has played in Nike’s enormous success. Did it help Nike become famous? Or do we recognize it only because Nike is so famous on its own? Graphic designer and writer David Airey gives all due praise to Davidson’s work, but notes that it’s important not to get a brand symbol confused with the brand itself.
“Nike could’ve chosen a completely different symbol, and it would’ve gone on to identify the company in much the same way,” he said. “Logos take their meaning from the entities they represent. Not the other way around.”