The Phaidon Folio

The $35 Swoosh: The Stories Behind 11 of the Most Iconic Logos

The $35 Swoosh: The Stories Behind 11 of the Most Iconic Logos

Art is often confined to museums, galleries and personal collections, requiring a pilgrimage to truly experience the work's affect. Graphic design, however, is meant to travel alongside us, grabbing our attention on a busy street corner or an overcrowded store shelf. In addition to being visually pleasing, graphic design has to communicate a specific instruction or an irrefutable identity. It's a tough balancing act, for sure, but some designs and symbols have become unforgettable and inseparable from their brands or directives—elevating this skill of visual communication to a fine art.

As if completing the cycle, contemporary art is turning its eye to graphic design for inspiration. Artists like Timur Si-Qin , Mark Flood , and Cory Arcangel have incorporated famous trademarks into their works—sometimes creating their own label or brand in the process . Last year's Berlin Biennale (curated by DIS) represented the pinnacle of this influence, with almost every artist commenting on the ubiquity of brands and their identities in an ever-expanding globalized marketplace.

To beef up your knowledge, check out this excerpt below from Phaidon's book Graphic: 500 Designs that Matter. From students who were paid pennies on the dollar for their iconic designs, to an art director inspired by the long-gone hippie days of his youth, surprises abound in the history of the most pervasive and well-designed logos and symbols.

Designed by Ivan Chermayeff and Matthew Carter


For an institution whose mission is to be modern and contemporary, the history of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) logotype may seem surprisingly prudent and practical, although to think so risks confusing the modern with the trendy. Over a forty-year development period, the discretion of Ivan Chermayeff, Bruce Mau, and Matthew Carter has helped the image of this modernist institution keep pace with changing times.

When the Museum of Modern Art approached Chermayeff and Geismar Associates in 1964, the firm was still relatively young but had already produced some of its most identifiable marks, including Mobil (1964) and Chase Manhattan (1959). Chermayeff’s approach was to replace the museum’s geometric, Bauhaus-inspired typeface with Franklin Gothic No. 2, a classic, sturdy “modern Gothic” with just the right touch of humanity. While the fully spelled-out name had previously always had a place, time and familiarity led to the increased use of the acronym MOMA, and finally to the more recognizable and distinct MoMA. To mark its 2004 reopening, MoMA wanted a new logotype, and looked to Bruce Mau, whose firm was handling the revised signage system, to choose a new typeface. His response was to retain Franklin Gothic.

Moma Redesign The subtle changes to MoMA's logo

The museum then approached Carter, whose career had seen the evolution of typography from punch-cutting to Fontographer, and who had produced the practical Bell Centennial (1978) and the playful Walker (1995) fonts. His view was that Franklin had lost its character: the distinct letterforms had been brutalized and made squat by being enlarged and converted to digital type. Using the original metal type, Carter went about redrawing every character, creating a new logo and two complete alphabets for signage and text. The result was a revision so subtle that few noticed it, but for the museum, Carter, and the typographic community, it was a reunion with an old friend, which improved upon the original by making it true to its roots.

Designed by 
Gary Anderson

Recycling Logo

Since its design in 1970, the universal recycling symbol has become one of the twentieth century’s most widely recognized emblems. However, the triangle of three curved arrows has also been a victim of its own success, reproduced in so many forms around the world that it now no longer has a consistent meaning and even varies between industries.

The icon was the outcome of a nationwide competition by the Container Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest paper recycler, which required a recycling symbol for its cardboard boxes, and roughly coincided with the first Earth Day. Gary Anderson, who won the contest, was a twenty-three-year-old architecture student at the University of Southern California. His hand-drawn design was inspired by the Möbius strip, while the arrows were intended as both
 a representation of the recycling process and a metaphorical reference to the constancy of matter.

Gary Anderson Bill Llyod, judge of the contest, and Gary Anderson

Anderson’s original design was rotated by CCA so that the space inside the three arrows could resemble a tree, and licensed to other paper companies for a nominal fee. When CCA attempted to register it as a trademark, however, this was challenged by an environmental group on the grounds that it would force other companies
 to design their own symbols. This happened anyway, and by the 1980s the American Paper Institute alone was promoting four different versions. Despite its multiplicity, however, the recycling symbol is broadly recognized internationally, if not always clearly understood. The adoption of the icon as a Unicode computer character has further helped to enshrine its place in popular consciousness.

Designed by Milton Glaser

I Love NY

Milton Glaser designed the I♥NY logo pro bono, to help the state of New York with its tourism campaign. It was designed to raise the spirits of New Yorkers, who were suffering spiraling decline in their quality of life, and to produce an atmosphere that would attract visitors and business to the city. The mark was freely distributed for about fifteen years to any enterprise that wished to use it. Later, the state decided to trademark it and control its use. Little did Glaser—or anyone for that matter—know how incredibly popular it would be. “The universal acceptance and ongoing reinterpretation of the I♥NY logo continues to astonish me,” he said. In addition to aiding the campaign, the logo became an icon, both for New York and numerous other cities and towns throughout the world, and is the most borrowed visual idea since Grant Wood’s American Gothic or Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover.

After the events of 11 September 2001, the slogan took on an entirely new and unexpected relevance, becoming the seal of a city (and nation). Within hours of the tragedy Glaser decided to inject even greater emotion into the symbol: to I♥NY he added the words “more than ever” and bruised a corner of the heart. Although the state of New York objected, Glaser explained that the symbol—old and new—had become an emotional touchstone, and that the extra features made its relevance incalculable.

More Than Evers Cropped Glaser's alterations to the logo post-9/11

Curiously, the city had no interest in using this new variant, feeling that anything that acknowledged 9/11 might be interpreted as weakness. Glaser nonetheless emailed it to a friend on the Daily News , whose editor, Ed Kosner, promised to publish it in two days’ time. “The following morning I was awakened by a call from a local radio show,” Glaser recalls, “asking me why I designed the logo, which went from an inside page to the front and back cover of the paper. Evidently, Kosner had decided to use it earlier and more dramatically than I could have imagined.” Glaser’s instinct had proved sound: as before, the logo resonated with the public, who now felt the need for a symbol that reflected both the tragedy visited on the city and their own defiant response.

Olympic Rings
Designed by 
Pierre Frédy, Baron de Coubertin

Olympic Rings

The five-ring Olympic logo has become a highly effective visual emblem for an event that embraces almost every country and culture in the world. Pierre Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, the “father” and champion of the modern Olympics, had a keen interest in visual communication and was eager for the event to have a strong unifying symbol. In 1913 he conceived the five-ring Olympic logo, using the colors most often displayed on national flags. Although interpretations vary, the rings and their colors are usually taken to represent the five continents, while their interlocking design is thought to suggest ideas of eternity and unity. The logo first appeared on a white flag flown at the Antwerp Olympic Games of 1920, later appearing on posters for the St. Moritz Games in 1928. Since then, graphic designers have used the symbol in increasingly innovative ways: one Winter Olympics poster showed the five-ring logo skiing down a snowy hill, and in Per Arnoldi’s poster design for the 1996 Danish Paralympics Association, the rings became transformed into shapes such as triangles and squares, still clinging together as a group but also conveying the diversity and independence that underline the Paralympic movement.

Rings Variations Flyer for the 1968 Winter Olympics and the flyer for the 1996 Paralympics

The importance of graphic design for advertising the Olympic Games, particularly during its early days, cannot be underestimated: distributed in public areas such as train stations throughout the world, Olympic posters allowed different graphic styles and messages to spread as designers took the opportunity to promote not only the event but also
 the host nation and its political agenda. The five-ring symbol provides a neat visual shorthand for the Olympic movement as a whole, combining visual efficiency with flexibility and multiplicity of meaning.

Designed by Bill Ray and George Warlick

Radiation Original

Commonly known as the trefoil, the international radiation symbol was a “doodle” produced by a group of people at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, University of California, who were keen to develop a warning symbol for this new kind of dangerous material. The trefoil represents the activity of an atom.

The symbol was first designed in magenta on a blue background. However, the blue proved to be unpopular and, in 1948, Bill Ray and George Warlick, who worked for the renowned health physicist K. Z. Morgan, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, cut out the magenta symbols and stapled them on
to cards of different colors, then looked at them from a distance outdoors. They decided that magenta on yellow best conveyed the idea of danger, and this became the standard design in early 1948. The image is drawn with a central circle of radius R, an internal radius of 1.5 R and an external radius of 5 R for the blades, which are separated from each other by sixty degrees. Since then, the use of a yellow background has come to be a general indication of “hazard,” as defined by The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which decides on criteria for worldwide signs; outside the U.S. the magenta trefoil is often printed in black.

Radiation New The IAEA's new radiation symbol

In 2001, when it was learned that, in certain parts of the world, people who did not understand the meaning of the trefoil were touching and disassembling lethal material, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced its intention to create a new radiation symbol for the most dangerous categories of ionizing radiation. Released by the IAEA and the ISO in 2007, the new symbol features a stick figure running from a skull and waves radiating from a small trefoil, set against a red background. The trefoil remains the international symbol of radiation, but this new pictogram acts as an additional sign to alert those unaware of the symbol to the dangers of radioactivity.

Designed by Carolyn Davidson

Nike Swoosh

In 1971, Phil Knight’s Blue Ribbon Sports shoe company required some statistics and marketing graphics for a business presentation, so he commissioned Portland State University art student Carolyn Davidson. Davidson did not realize that her charts-and-graphs assignment would deliver her a more substantial project at a later date—designing the iconic Nike “swoosh.” Knight was not completely happy with Davidson’s early rendering, but decided to use the logo in order to meet a string of deadlines.

Track coach and Nike cofounder Bill Bowerman felt the symbol resembled a foot pushing off the ground, but thanks to employee Jeff Johnson’s suggestion that the company be called Nike, we associate it with one of the Greek goddess’s wings. Davidson invoiced Nike $35 for her design work, and would maintain her position as Nike designer by creating a complete range of corporate communication material, advertisements, and packaging, until the volume of work became too much for one person to manage.

Nike Original Carolyn Davidson's original design

The logo has evolved since the 1970s, when the shape had “Nike” written over it with a script typeface. Subsequent iterations include “Nike” in oblique sans serif lettering stacked above (1978), the lockup contained within a red box (1985), and the symbol on its own without any text. As early as 1986, Nike began to abandon the swoosh on certain shoe styles, most surprisingly the Air Jordan II, the popular successor to the first Air Jordan. This marketing decision raised 
a lot of eyebrows, but it was a move in the right direction, allowing the Air Jordan brand to survive and demonstrating the power of star athletes’ endorsements— in this case, basketball player Michael Jordan. Nike became even more serious about dropping the symbol in 1996–97, when corporate executives identified it 
in the company’s annual report as over-dominant. Despite this, the Nike logo has become indelibly 
associated in the public mind with the athletic-goods industry, making sports virtually synonymous with the Nike name.

Designed by Jim Schindler


The first McDonald’s restaurant opened in May 1940 in San Bernardino, California, and catered to drive-in customers. In 1948 brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald ditched the carhops, reduced the offerings to take-out food, instituted an assembly-line process called the Speedee Service System, and delivered the world’s first fast-food burgers. Some years later in 1953, Richard McDonald, with the help of sign-maker George Dexter, designed a pair of golden arches as an eye-catching architectural flourish for a second McDonald’s restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona, that is still in business.

In 1961 McDonald’s, which by now had become a small franchise, was bought out by Ray Kroc, an entrepreneur from Oak Park, Illinois. In the 1960s the company decided to modernize the logo, which until then had been the Speedee chef, and to remove the arches from the buildings designed by Richard McDonald, but was advised against this action by design consultant and psychologist Louis Cheskin. Instead, Fred Turner, a McDonald’s employee and later CEO, sketched a “V” for the new logo, which was subsequently altered by James Schindler, head of engineering and design, to an “M,” consisting of two golden arches pierced by the slash of the building’s roofline. In 1968 the slash was eliminated and the McDonald’s name was added. The company then tore down the restaurants designed by Richard McDonald and replaced them with red-brick buildings with mansard roofs.

old McDonalds Logo The previous McDonald's Logo

McDonald’s spends more money on advertising and marketing than any other company, and has now replaced Coca-Cola as the world’s most famous brand. Signifying more than fast food, the McDonald’s logo has come to symbolize global corporate culture itself.

Designed by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel

Chanel Logo

Gabrielle Chanel opened her first couture shop in 1913, just prior to World War I. By the 1920s, Chanel was fully realizing her vision, pioneering a new vocabulary for women’s fashion that would establish the “little black dress” and the “jersey suit” as wardrobe staples. Chanel created designs that reflected
a glamorous, independent lifestyle and encapsulated a functionalism that echoed the era’s modernist principles. During 
the same period Chanel conceived a house logo, based on the two “C”s of her nickname, “Coco,” thereby forever connecting the brand with its founder.

The innovation of the Chanel logo is matched by that of the products and packaging. The Chanel No 5 package, with its stark black lines and plain sans serif lettering, is one of the most iconic in the world—an example of minimalist aesthetics that has remained virtually unchanged for almost a century and is now inseparable from the product itself

In conceiving the product and the packaging, Chanel may have been inspired by the rectilinear shape and un-ornamented labels of the laboratory bottles in which the French perfumer who created the perfume, Ernest Beaux, mixed his samples.

Andy Warhol, Chanel 1985 Andy Warhol, Chanel , 1985

In testament to the Chanel logo’s power as an emblem of glamour, examples are held in many museum collections, and in the 1980s Andy Warhol used the packaging as the subject of a set of silkscreens.

Design by Rob Janoff

Apple Logo

Apple Computer’s original logo, devised by one of Apple’s founders, Ron Gerald Wayne (he opted out of the partnership with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak after eleven days), depicted Sir Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree. However, the image was deemed too intricate, and Jobs and Wozniak asked Regis McKenna Advertising in Palo Alto, California, to produce a simpler version. Art director Rob Janoff created a design using the basic graphic shape of an apple, adding a bite to give it scale and to prevent it from being misconstrued as just a fruit; Janoff also felt the bite suggested a twist on the idea of a worm coming out of an apple. Inspired by the Beatles film Yellow Submarine , he gave the apple rainbow stripes to endow it with a happy look and to remind him of his hippie days. The stripes also demonstrated that the Apple screen displayed color, a rarity at the time, and suggested a friendly personality, rather than a “hard, techy thing,” that was likely to appeal to children, a market 
Jobs hoped to attract. It has been said that the bite represents temptation, or a “byte,” and that it contains an
 oblique reference to the seduction of 
the marketplace. Janoff says that, sadly, none of this is true—it was designed purely for utilitarian reasons on the basis of the company’s name.

Old Apple Logo Apple's original logo, designed by Ron Gerald Wayne

Janoff attributes the symbol’s longevity to the excellence of the products it represents and to the friendliness of the image, which encourages a cult-like attachment. Janoff’s original shape, more asymmetrical and natural than the current iteration, was tweaked by Landor and Associates a few years after it first appeared, making it simpler and more streamlined. In 1997 Jobs decided to abandon the rainbow colors in favor of a monochrome logo, first used on the Powerbook G3 in 1998. In 2003, with the launch of Apple’s Panther operating system, the emblem acquired its current sophisticated silver-chrome finish, bringing it more in line with the ultra-sleek style of the company’s products.

Rolling Stones
Designed by John Pasche

Rolling Stones

John Pasche’s career was just dawning when the Rolling Stones commissioned him to design a symbol for the band’s own record label. The lolling tongue that is now synonymous with the group first made its appearance on the inner sleeve of the 1971 album Sticky Fingers , and since then has featured prominently in the Rolling Stones’s promotional graphics.

The visual appeal of the lips and tongue is based on the bright simplicity and sexy suggestiveness of the design, which,
 with its plump lines and gloss, owes a debt to cartoons and Pop art. Over the years, the design has proved a highly versatile emblem, used for Rolling Stones’s marketing campaigns, record sleeves 
and tour merchandise. The “She’s So Cold” single sleeve of 1980, for example, appropriately showed the tongue with icicles, whereas the tour U.S. of 1981 depicted it flying above a stylized American landscape. Today, the logo is licensed to appear on a wide variety of products, including clothing, accessories, and wine.

She's So Cold The Rolling Stones, She's So Cold single, 1980

One factor in the trademark’s success is undoubtedly the longevity of the band it represents. The group’s regular tours 
and huge stadium shows provide ample opportunities for the easily reproduced logo to play a starring role. Another is 
the ideal marriage of the symbol and the product it represents; based on the famous lips of Mick Jagger, the design evokes the history of the Rolling Stones itself, with its emphasis on sexuality, excess, and danger. Indeed, the logo encapsulates all that a rock band should be: cheeky, visceral, and uncomplicated. Pasche has since sold the copyright of his design, and in 2008 the original gouache artwork was acquired by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.


Adidas Logo

The three-stripe logo on sports apparel and equipment has been synonymous with the Adidas brand since it first appeared on the company’s footwear in 1948. Over the years, the appearance and use of the three stripes has varied, but the company’s slogan, “ Die Weltmarke mit den Drei Streifen ” (The brand with the three stripes), is a testament to its importance for the brand’s identity.

The name “adidas” comes from the founder, Adolf “Adi” Dassler. Dassler began designing training shoes shortly after returning from World War I, and in 1924 he and his brother, Rudolf, formed Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory). Despite the company’s rapid growth, the partnership ended in 1948, with Rudolf going on to found a competing sports shoe company, Puma. Adolf formally registered Adidas AG in the same year, and added the trademark three stripes to his shoe designs for the first time, combined with the bold, sans serif, lowercase logotype.

Adolf Dassler Adolf "Adi" Dassler

In 1962 the company began producing its now-iconic tracksuits, featuring three stripes running down the length of the arms and legs, but it had yet to develop the three stripes into a single graphic representation. Finally, in 1972 the company began using the trefoil as its corporate logo, with three horizontal stripes running through it to maintain 
the three-stripe corporate identity. Although not introduced as the corporate logo until 1997, the current “mountain” emblem was designed by the then creative director Peter Moore in 1990, the year after the company established itself as the Adidas Aktiengesellschaft . The A-shape
 of the three parallel bars is intended to embody an athlete’s focused, goal-oriented mentality, and was initially used solely on sports equipment.


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