How The Creator Of Nike’s Logo Was Paid Just $35 For Her Work, But Ended Up Becoming A Millionaire Anyway

If you happen to pick the right gig, working for just 17.5 hours can make you more money than most people make in their careers.

In 1971, Carolyn Davidson was a graphic design student at Portland State, when she met a man who was teaching accounts at the same university. The man, who was named Phil Knight, wasn’t a full time accounts teacher — he was also running a shoe company on the side. He learnt that she was in search of extra funds to be able to take oil painting classes, so he offered to pay her to do some freelance work. She would get paid $2 per hour for her efforts.

Davidson did some freelance work for the company — which was called Blue Ribbon — for a while. But then Knight had a new assignment. He wanted a logo designed for a new brand he was launching. The brand was to be called Nike.

“What kind of logo do you want?,” Davidson asked Knight. Knight, who wasn’t a big fan of advertising and branding, said he didn’t know. “That gives me a lot to go on,” she said. “Something that evokes a sense of motion,” he told her.

“Two weeks later she came back with a portfolio of rough sketches,” Knight writes in his autobiography. “They were all variations on a single theme, and the theme seemed to be . . . fat lightning bolts? Chubby check marks? Morbidly obese squiggles? Her designs did evoke motion, of a kind, but also motion sickness. None spoke to me,” he said.

But he picked out some designs he did like, and asked her to work on those. “Carolyn returned and spread a second series of sketches across the conference table,” Knight recalls. “She also hung a few on the wall. She’d done several dozen more variations on the original theme, but with a freer hand. These were better. Closer,” he says.

There was one that the management team particularly liked. “It looks like a wing, one of them said. It looks like a whoosh of air, said another. It looks like something a runner might leave in his or her wake, said someone else. “We all agreed it looked new, fresh, and yet somehow—ancient. Timeless,” says Knight.

carolyn davidson nike

What Davidson had come up with, of course, what is now known as Nike’s logo. She said she’s worked for 17 and a half hours developing it, so she was given a cheque of $35 and sent on her way. Nike’s founder, though, wasn’t quite convinced with what she’s come up with. “I don’t love it. Maybe it will grow on me,” he’d then said.

The logo might not have appealed immediately to Knight, but it’s done okay since then — it’s been seen at Olympic podiums, at Wimbledon, the US Masters, and on millions of pairs of shoes around the world. And Carolyn Davidson got something more than $35 and the satisfaction of seeing her work become one the world’s most recognizable symbols — in 1983, she was given 500 shares of Nike stock as appreciation for her work. She didn’t immediately sell those shares, and they ended up being worth over $1 million (Rs. 7 crore). Not bad, one would say, for seventeen and a half hours of work.