Phil Knight on the Surprising Origin Story of Nike’s Name and Swoosh

Would Nike still be Nike if it had been named Dimension Six?

Detail of the Air Jordan Nike shoes worn by Michael Jordan during a game in Washington, D.C., in 1985. Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: In this excerpt from his memoir Shoe Dog, the founder of Nike, Phil Knight, shares how Nike got its name and logo.

TThe year was 1971. My shoe company — at the time called Blue Ribbon — and Onitsuka, our longtime Japanese shoe supplier, were about to break up. I needed to find a replacement for Onitsuka.

I remembered a factory I’d heard about, in Guadalajara, the one where Adidas had manufactured shoes during the 1968 Olympics, allegedly to skirt Mexican tariffs. The shoes were good, as I recalled. So I set up a meeting with the factory managers.

Even though it was in central Mexico, the factory was called Canada. A factory south of the border named for a country north of the border. Oh well. I didn’t care. The factory was big, clean, well run. Plus, it was Adidas-endorsed. I told them I’d like to place an order. Three thousand pairs of leather soccer shoes, which I planned to sell as football shoes.

Now about that logo. My new soccer-qua-football shoe would need something to set it apart from the stripes of Adidas and Onitsuka. I recalled a young artist I’d met at Portland State, Carolyn Davidson. When I got back to Oregon, I invited her to the office and told her we needed a logo.

“What kind?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“That gives me a lot to go on,” she said.

“Something that evokes a sense of motion,” I said.

She looked confused. Of course she did, I was babbling. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted. I wasn’t an artist. I showed her the soccer-football shoe and said, unhelpfully: “This. We need something for this.”

She said she’d give it a try.

“Motion,” she mumbled, leaving my office. “Motion.” A few weeks later, she came back with a portfolio of sketches.

I looked them over with my COO Bob Woodell and salesman and first full-time employee Jeff Johnson. Gradually we inched toward a consensus. We liked . . . this one . . . slightly more than the others.

It looks like a wing, one of us said.

It looks like a whoosh of air, another said.

It looks like something a runner might leave in his or her wake. We all agreed it looked new, fresh, and yet somehow — ancient.

Timeless.

For her many hours of work, we gave Carolyn our deepest thanks and a check for $35, then sent her on her way.

After she left, we continued to sit and stare at this one logo, which we’d sort of selected and sort of settled on by default. “Something eye-catching about it,” Johnson said. Woodell agreed. I frowned, scratched my cheek. “You guys like it more than I do,” I said. “But we’re out of time. It’ll have to do.”

“You don’t like it?” Woodell said.

I sighed. “I don’t love it. Maybe it will grow on me.”

Now we just needed a name to go with this logo I didn’t love.

Over the next few days, we kicked around dozens of ideas, until two leading candidates emerged: Falcon and Dimension Six.

I was partial to the latter because I was the one who came up with it. Woodell and everyone else told me that it was god-awful. It wasn’t catchy, they said, and it didn’t mean anything.

We took a poll of all our employees. Ford had just paid a top consulting firm $2 million to come up with the name of its new Maverick, I announced to everyone. “We haven’t got $2 million — but we’ve got 50 smart people, and we can’t do any worse than . . . Maverick.”

Also, unlike Ford, we had a deadline. Canada was starting production on the shoe that Friday.

Hour after hour was spent arguing and yelling, debating the virtue of this name or that. Again and again, I lobbied for Dimension Six. Again and again, I was told by my employees that it was unspeakably bad.

The day of decision arrived. Canada had already started producing the shoes, and samples were ready to go in Japan, but before anything could be shipped, we needed to choose a name. Also, we had magazine ads slated to run, to coincide with the shipments, and we needed to tell the graphic artists what name to put in the ads. Finally, we needed to file paperwork with the U.S. Patent Office.

Woodell came into my office. “Time’s up,” he said.

I rubbed my eyes. “I know.”

“What’s it going to be?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“There is . . . one more suggestion,” Woodell said. “Johnson phoned first thing this morning. Apparently a new name came to him in a dream last night.”

I rolled my eyes. “What is it?” I asked, bracing myself.

“Nike.”

“Huh?”

“Nike.”

“Spell it.”

“N-I-K-E,” Woodell said.

I wrote it on a yellow legal pad.

The Greek goddess of victory. The Acropolis. The Parthenon. The Temple.

“We’re out of time,” I said. “Nike. Falcon. Or Dimension Six.”

“Everyone hates Dimension Six,” he replied.

“Everyone but me.”

“It’s your call,” he said, frowning, and left me.

I hated making decisions in a hurry, and that’s all I seemed to do in those days. I gave myself two more minutes to mull over the different options, then walked down the hall to the telex machine.

Reluctantly, I punched out the message. The name of the new brand is . . .

A lot of things were rolling around in my head, consciously, unconsciously. First, Johnson had pointed out that seemingly all iconic brands — Clorox, Kleenex, Xerox — have short names. Two syllables or less. And they always have a strong sound in the name, a letter like “K” or “X,” that sticks in the mind. That all made sense. And that all described Nike.

Also, I liked that Nike was the goddess of victory. What’s more important, I thought, than victory?

I might have heard, in the far recesses of my mind, Churchill’s voice. “You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory.” I might have recalled the victory medal awarded to all veterans of World War II, a bronze medallion with Athena Nike on the front, breaking a sword in two. I might have. Sometimes I believe that I did. But in the end, I don’t really know what led me to my decision. Luck? Instinct? Some inner spirit?

Yes.

“What’d you decide?” Woodell asked me at the end of the day. “Nike,” I mumbled. “Hm,” he said. “Yeah, I know,” I said. “Maybe it’ll grow on us,” he said.

Maybe.

From Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. Copyright © 2016 by Phil Knight. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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