By Rachael Steven

Marketing agency Ignifi has designed a new book for Nike documenting the history of the brand and its running heritage. The publication covers the making of its famous swoosh, the story behind its name and the invention of key products from Pegasus to Air, with photography, letters and sketches from Nike’s archives.

There is no Finish Line: The Nike Running Story was commissioned by Nike’s Ekin team, to give to Running Speciality Group retailers. Ignifi says it was asked to create a publication showcasing the history and technology of Nike products, alongside the stories of key Nike athletes and innovators.

The book begins in the 1950s, profiling Nike founders William Jay Bowerman (a track and field coach who trained 31 Olympic athletes) and Phil Knight (who Bowerman coached at the University of Oregon). It also includes chapters on Jeff Johnson, Geoff Hollister and Steve Prefontaine, who helped establish the brand in its early days, as well as breakthrough inventions and world famous athletes who have worked closely with Nike. Here’s a look at some of the stories featured…

Knight and Bowerman went into business in 1964, setting up a sports shoe distribution business called Blue Ribbon Sports. After writing a paper on the success of Japanese sports shoe brands while studying for a Master’s, Knight had travelled to Japan to meet with shoe brand owners, and managed to secure an order of Otsikuna shoes (the book claims he came up with the name for the brand on the spot during a meeting with Otsikuna’s founder, neglecting to tell him his distribution business was, at the time, operating from his parents’ basement in Portland).

He sent a sample of shoes to Bowerman, who had developed a keen interest in sports shoes after discovering jogging (he published a successful book on the subject, which sold a million copies), expecting him to order a few samples. Bowerman replied with a letter, quoted in the book, which read: “If you can set up some kind of contractual agreement with Otsikuna, for goodness sake, do it…I’ll pass on some of my ideas to you; but of course, I’ll expect you to make some kind of an arrangement with cutting your old coach in.”

The Nike name

By 1970, Blue Ribbon Sports had a mail order business and a store in Santa Monica. But with Knight and Bowerman keen to start designing their own shoes, they needed a new brand name. Employee Jeff Johnson came up with the idea for Nike Inc in 1971 – but Knight and Bowerman weren’t convinced to begin with.

Johnson was Nike’s first full-time employee, and had designed the brand’s brochures, print ads and catalogues (he also set up its first store and warehouse with Geoff Hollister). While trying to come up with a brand name for Nike, he reportedly read an article in an in-flight magazine about the success of household brands such as Kleenex and Xerox, which stated that company names should ideally have no more than two syllables, and at least one exotic sound with an ‘x’, ‘k’ or ‘z’.

After struggling to come up with a word that would fit this criteria, Johnson reportedly woke at 6.30am one Friday, called the company’s headquarters and said, “I’ve got it, Nike.” The book states that he heard nothing for a week, until it was confirmed that, “nobody liked it, but it seemed better than anything else”.

The $35 swoosh

Nike’s famous swoosh was created in 1971 by Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student at Portland University, where Knight taught accounting. Knight offered Davidson $2 an hour to create the brand’s logo after overhearing her saying that she wanted to take an oil painting class, but couldn’t afford it.

After a couple of weeks, Davidson produced the following sketch, but according to Johnson, “none of them captivated anyone”. The company opted for the design it disliked least, with Knight reportedly saying “I don’t love it, but it will grow on me.”

Davidson sent the brand a $35 invoice for the swoosh, an amount equivalent to 17.5 hours work, and far less time than she had spent working on the symbol. “It was my first real commission after finishing school. I had no idea about pricing, and just charged for the one drawing,” she explains in the book.

In 1983, however, she was presented with a black-and-gold swoosh ring, a certificate ‘blaming her for all of the company’s problems’ and a gift of 500 shares, which she has reportedly never sold (and which are of course now worth considerably more).

Guerrilla marketing and Athletics West

The book also pays homage to the late Geoff Hollister, who worked for Nike for four decades and helped boost the company’s profile in its early days using some clever guerrilla marketing tactics. He also developed the brand’s famous Windrunner jacket, and refined Nike’s sunburst symbol, which was designed by Johnson and inspired by the 1972 Olympics logo.

In 1972, Hollister made up t-shirts for athletes competing in the Olympics Trials at Oregon (pictured below), with Nike branding on the front and athletes’ names hot pressed on the reverse. The clothing broke the Olympic Committees strict no trademark rule, but “officials didn’t seem to notice” and Hollister succeeded in getting Nike’s products in to the hands of elite athletes.

Hollister was also responsible for signing Olympian Seb Coe at the 1980 Olympics (key to boosting Nike’s profile at the Games, as the US had boycotted the event); and founded track clubs, road and rail races for runners in Oregon. In 1973, he set up Athletics West, a post graduate training club offering coaching, funding, physiotherapy, uniforms and part-time work for athletes.

The club was the first brand sponsored post graduate running club, growing from a small basement office paying 10 athletes around $6000 to “a multi-million dollar operation.” Early logos and posters promoting it are featured in the book, alongside a shot of the team training in their uniforms.

Just Do It

Another chapter documents the brief given to Wieden + Kennedy in 1988 for an ad campaign to follow Nike’s controversial Revolution ad, which used The Beatles song of the same name (the band filed a $15 million lawsuit against the company and Wieden + Kennedy for using the track the same year, with George Harrison saying they wanted to “set a precedent” to stop its music being used in advertising).

Asked to capture “a more complete spectrum of the physical and emotion benefits of sports and exercise, and make the brand relevant to lots of different people”, the agency came up with the now world famous Just Do It tagline, a phrase loosely inspired by the words of  Portland murderer Gary Gillmore, who reportedly uttered “let’s do this” when put before a firing squad.

While Nike was initially unsure about the concept, it became an instant classic: Wieden, quoted in the book, says “Nike and the agency didn’t understand how powerful the effect was on the public right away. People started calling and writing – but it wasn’t the typical athlete worship. It had the strangest repercussions on the general audience, including people on the verge of committing suicide, who interpreted ‘Just do it’ as meaning something like ‘Live your life’.

Knight says the brand soon received thousands of letters, which he says “led us to believe that if these people were passionate enough to write to us we were really on to something.”


Athletes and key tech innovations

Key technical innovations from throughout Nike’s history are also featured in the book – from Air, developed by Frank Rudy in 1980 (Rudy took the air cushion system used to protect skiiers ankles in ski boots and applied it to the soles of running shoes, which led to athletes using considerably less energy on treadmills):

To Pegasus, which was conceived as an affordable alternative to its Air range, and launched with a tongue-in-cheek ad claiming ‘never will so many own so much for so little’. More recent developments are covered too, such as its Flyknit trainers and Dri-Fit fabric, and digital products Nike + and Nike Fuel band are showcased alongside their predecessor, a 1980s system called the Monitor 1000, which runners could strap to their waist to measure speed, heartrate and distance via Sonar:

Alongside this, there are chapters on Nike’s relationship with athletes from Seb Coe to Joan Benoit, Carl Lewis and Alberto Salazar, as well as groundbreaking bespoke products created for runners. One section outlines the making of a pair of gold shoes for Michael Johnson, which he wore to win the 200m and 400m races in the 1996 Olympics, and which weighed just 112 grammes.

The shoes were actually supposed to be silver – Nike designer Tobie Hatfield spent months experimenting with silver filament to create a surface that would reflect the lights in stadium – but were changed to gold for fear “of jinxing Michael into second place”. A follow-up pair, made a few months later, featured a real 24-carat upper, made by melting down a gold bar and placing droplets in the material.

It’s a fascinating collection of content, and a reminder of some of Nike’s greatest innovations over the years. Ignifi has added some nice design touches too – from a shoebox filled with artefacts in the book’s opening spread to gilted edging, a shoelace placeholder and colour coded chapter openers with vintage long copy ads.

Read more here:: New book documents Nike's running heritage