The Strange Stories Behind 5 Famous Logos

Posted on July 4, 2023 | Updated on July 4, 2023

You know them by sight — the Nike Swoosh, the Starbucks mermaid, the Apple apple. These iconic logos are so ingrained in modern culture that you can probably identify them better than the flowers in your front yard. But where did the world’s most famous logos come from? 

1. Nike

Nike of Samothrace is one of the world’s most recognizable marble statues. Armless and headless, bearing a lush pair of wings poised for flight, the Greek sculpture depicts Nike — the goddess of victory — in a swirling tunic. 

When assistant professor Phil Knight wanted a logo for the sportswear business he was starting, he turned to one of his graphic design students, Carolyn Davidson, for help. Among other logo ideas, she presented him with a design that resembled one of Nike’s outstretched wings, or perhaps the air it left in its wake. 

Knight paid her just $35 for the artwork. Neither he nor Davidson had any idea how famous that simple logo would become. 

As the Nike company exploded into one of the world’s biggest sportswear providers, $35 started to seem like an unfair earning for such a simple yet iconic logo design. To thank her, Knight awarded Davidson with company shares and a diamond ring in the shape of the Nike Swoosh. As of 2015, those shares were worth an estimated $1 million.  

2. Apple

A logo can strongly influence people’s perception of a business. In fact, a survey found that 67% of small businesses would pay $500 or more for a great logo, emphasizing the importance of a solid design choice. However, an emblem doesn’t necessarily have to relate to the company’s products or services to make an impact. 

Apple, the world’s largest corporation by market capitalization, uses a logo that has nothing to do with its technology products. Founder Steve Jobs was on an all-fruit diet and had just returned from an apple orchard when he conceived of his company’s name. In addition to the word sounding fun and spirited, Jobs realized “Apple” would be ahead of “Atari” in the phone book, giving it a slight edge over the competition. 

Thus, the company name was born — it just needed a logo. The first drawing, designed by Ronald Wayne in 1976, is an elaborate black-and-white sketch of Isaac Newton with an apple poised above his head. Detailed grass and bumpy mountaintops dot the landscape. Although undoubtedly a nice drawing, the design proved too complicated to print on a larger scale. It also had a somewhat old-fashioned feel that belied the tech company’s foray into the future. 

Designer Rob Janoff reimagined the logo as a rainbow apple, a nod to the fact that Apple produced the first colored-display computers. He added the bite mark to give the fruit a sense of scale. Otherwise, it might look like a cherry or grape. 

In 1998, the apple lost its signature hues, making the emblem even easier to print and distribute. The icon was recognizable enough without being rainbow, and making it a solid color lent it an air of refinement and luxury. The neutral tones also went well with devices in various colors. 

3. World Wrestling Entertainment

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), formerly World Wrestling Federation (WWF), went head to head with a peace-loving opponent in 2002 — and still lost the match. Its challenger? None other than the World Wildlife Fund, whose company name bore the same initials. Both corporations were using their initials as their logo. 

WWF vs. WWF was a dramatic brawl. The world’s largest wrestling promotion has had its share of mascots over the years, but they were no match for the World Wildlife Fund’s mighty panda. 

A legal battle forced the World Wrestling Federation to change its name and reimagine its logo in the process. The company dropped the “F” from its signature scrawl — creating a design with a striking resemblance to the Wonder Woman logo — and rebranded itself as an entertainment company.

4. Domino’s 

When brothers Tom and James Monaghan took over Dominick DeVarti’s pizza business — called DomiNick’s — in 1960, they had no idea they were about to found one of the world’s biggest restaurant chains. James already worked full time as a postman and didn’t want to quit his day job as the pizzeria grew. Consequently, he traded his half of the business to his brother in exchange for the Volkswagen they used to make deliveries. 

Tom eventually bought two more pizzerias and wanted them all to have the same name. However, DeVarti prevented him from using the DomiNick’s name, so Tom decided to call it Domino’s after an employee suggested it. He officially renamed his stores in 1965. 

The red-and-blue logo was a domino tile with three white dots to represent the three pizzerias. Originally, Tom wanted to add a dot for every new Domino’s location that opened, but he quickly abandoned that idea as the chain grew. Thank goodness he didn’t stick with his original plan — if he had, today’s Domino’s logo would have 19,880 dots, which is slightly too complicated to print. 

Today, the Domino’s design serves as a reminder of its humble roots. Its bold colors also help it stand out in busy urban areas surrounded by competing logos. 

5. Starbucks

Few famous logos are as ubiquitous as Starbucks’ white, twin-tailed siren on a green background. In fact, the drawing is so recognizable that Starbucks dropped its name from the design in 2011, letting people recognize it by sight alone. But the logo has undergone some more-noticeable changes since its 1971 inception.

The original design was more risque, featuring a naked mermaid on a brown background. Terry Heckler, the artist, drew inspiration for the logo from a 16th-century Scandinavian woodcarving featuring the same motif. 

Starbucks first updated its logo in 1987 to include the green background we all know and love. The new design also modernized the mermaid and covered her chest with long hair.

In 1992, the logo zoomed in on the mermaid’s face, and designers created the current famous logo in 2011. But there was a brief stint in 2008 when — on the company’s fortieth anniversary — Starbucks decided to revert to its original logo, this time on a black background. 

The backlash was instantaneous. 

People had grown used to the green, decidedly more modest design, and suddenly having a naked siren on a different-colored background was too much of a change. Gone was the sweet, coyly smiling young woman drawn in a minimalist style, and in her place was a middle-aged, possibly-not-safe-for-work, detailed sea creature whose tails looked — quite frankly — like sprouting pineapple trees. 

Starbucks quickly realized it had made a mistake. The coffee giant quietly switched back to its 1992 design, making no mention of the brief marketing failure on its timeline of the logo’s history, and continued on as the world’s most popular coffee shop. 

The Evolution of Designs

Logos are part of the modern urban landscape, serving as bright, often colorful representatives of companies and their products. Some of the most famous logos took a while to reach their final form, and many hit a few snags along the way. However, whether or not they’re perfect, they’ve found a place as emblems of the world’s most successful businesses. So, next time you reach for a cup of coffee, just remember how far the cup’s design has come. 

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