Carolyn Davidson Whos Who in Graphic Design – Ricky Frosch

Carolyn Davidson was born in 1943 and attended Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.  She originally started as a journalism major at the university and later switched to a graphic design major after taking a course in which she quoted as to “fill an empty elective”.  Her most famous work you have probably seen before and never known.  In fact, you have likely worn her most famous design many times and never even known it.  Carolyn designed the Nike “swoosh” in 1971 while still a student at Portland State University.  Phil Knight, an accounting professor at the university had overheard Carolyn complaining how she did not have the money to afford oil painting supplies and offered her to do some work for which was at the time, Blue Ribbon Sports Inc.  Running this company was a side job for the teaching assistant Knight.  Knight asked Carolyn to design a shoe stripe logo with “had something to do with movement”.  One of the designs that Carolyn came back with was the Nike “swoosh”.  Knight was in love with the Adidas and Puma logos of the time.  He told Carolyn after looking at her designs that he did not like the swoosh, but that it would grow on him over time.  At that time, Carolyn was paid $35 dollars which, adjusted for inflation would be $205 by today’s standards.  Carolyn continued to work for Nike Inc. for many years.  Later on, once Nike went public in 1983, Carolyn was presented with a diamond ring with the swoosh logo engraved on it as well as 500 shares of Nike stock.  This Nike stock is approximately worth $67,000 in today’s stock market.  In 1995, Nike removed the Nike name from the swoosh logo, and now the swoosh that Carolyn designed back in 1971 stands alone as the image of Nike that is seen from shoes, to shirts, to jerseys and to many more things.

The work that Carolyn did as a young college student is just showing of how anything is possible.  Carolyn was living in poverty and could not even afford supplies for her graphic design courses.  After designing one of the most famous logos in history and going on to continue to work for the company for many years, Carolyn was able to retire in 2000.  She continues to live in the Portland, Oregon area where she had made the logo all those years ago.  She lives an anything but quiet life however, as she continues to volunteer for various charities within the area and engage in her favorite hobbies.  Carolyn’s story shows how things can change very rapidly for a graphic designer as their creative work can be thrust into being known worldwide.  I’m sure Carolyn at the time would not believe you if you were to tell her what would become of her simple logo.  However, Nike has became a worldwide clothing supplier and Carolyn has been able to reap the benefits of creating that simple logo all those years ago.

This is the original Nike logo that came with the Nike words in a script-like font.  This particular logo was from 1972.  This was done while Carolyn was the only designer for Nike, so it is solely her work.  As you can see, there is the classic simple swoosh logo in the background of the script Nike.  In this example, it is just the outline of the swoosh, it is not filled in like what can be seen in other examples.  The Nike font however is filled in and not an outline of black.  All the letters of this script font are lowercase.  This is unlike many Nike logos today that have the spelling in all uppercase letters.  You can see how Nike does all uppercase in many of their “just do it” apparel that displays that motto.  You can see how the script almost bears resemblance to that of a baseball team.  Many baseball teams would use script lettering similar and thus maybe that gave some inspiration to the creation of this logo for Carolyn.  Oddly enough, you may notice that the I and the K do not connect to one another like the other letters.  Perhaps this was another purposeful design choice by Carolyn.  Regardless, this design rose to worldwide prominence during its tenure.  It can still be found on throwback designs today.

This block logo began use in 1985.  It shows a red block with the Nike swoosh inside and the Nike name written in all caps.  This logo does not have an outline around the Nike swoosh and instead has both the font and swoosh in complete white.  This Nike logo has the Nike name in all caps and does not have it on top of the swoosh.  This was done at a time when Carolyn was likely not working alone for the graphic design of Nike.  Therefore, these design choices may not have been solely done by her.  Regardless, the text seen for Nike is much more similar to their text for their “just do it” motto that is seen very often.  None of the letters are connected and are instead strung very close together while also being at an angle off to the right.  The only piece of the lettering that connects to the swoosh is the E and is still fully white and does not have any outline to separate it from the swoosh, an interesting design choice that looks very good in practice.  Finally, this design can be seen all over still today as it isn’t as old as the other one.  This design is still very much used by Nike and you have likely came across is before.


Raglin, Jeremy. “Carolyn Davidson – Creator of the Iconic Nike Swoosh.” PDX People, 29 Nov. 2017,

Admin, Joe – LMW. “Joe – LMW Admin.” LogoMyWay, 31 Jan. 2021,