As a designer, there is nothing like cannabis.
Words by Amy Paterson
And no, we’re not referring to weed’s long standing spot in the inspiration arsenal of so many creative professionals (though of course, if you hang around long enough you’ll inevitably catch that fragrant whiff coming from the back alley of most design studios and artistic spaces).
Rather, it is that for designers, cannabis has become a once-in-a-lifetime product to work on, because modern cannabis products have no real precedent.
When it comes to designing a new brand or envisioning a retail space, most products already have an existing visual identity, an established look and feel. When you cast your eyes over grocery store shelves, without reading the labels you will have an inherent awareness of what is an alcohol brand, what is a cleaning product, which items are organic. Thanks to a lifetime of subliminal signalling, the fonts, colours, pictures and packaging will tell you what something is before you’ve even picked it up.
But… what is cannabis?
Well, the world is still figuring that one out, and it’s unlikely that it will ever be a simple answer. Because for some, it’s a way to have fun with friends on a Friday night, but it can also be a means to meditation, stillness and spirituality before yoga on a solo Sunday morning. For others, it’s the answer to debilitating arthritis on an icy cold Monday, or the source of salvation from the agony of chemotherapy on a Thursday afternoon.
Cannabis is a product of multitudes, with a broad consumer base characterised by incredibly diverse demographics and an array of different occasions for its use. You’d be hard pressed to think of another product that can be marketed to both young and old, as a recreational device and also a medical treatment, to those who are chronically ill as well as those simply seeking to supplement their existing health and wellness.
“What’s interesting about CBD, and obviously cannabis on the whole, is how broad the demographics of our consumer is,” explains Verena von Pfetten, co-founder of cannabis magazine and lifestyle brand, Gossamer. “What it means to identify with cannabis has expanded from a certain type of person to anyone from my parents’ friends who, if you asked them two years ago, would have said ‘no, not for me’.”
So with no easily defined target market, as well as a dire necessity for an image overhaul of cannabis pre-legalisation, this rapidly emerging industry has become an incredible landscape of opportunity for innovative and exciting design.
“It heightens your senses, and in most experiences, for the better. It gives you a higher quality experience of whatever it is that you’re doing,” says von Pfetten. “I can’t think of a better reason, or space, for design to be creative, playful and stretch the boundaries of what you can do with a product than with cannabis. It’s just ripe for it.”
THE CHANGING FACE OF WEED
Of course, it is not entirely true to say that cannabis has no precedent when it comes to the visual elements of design. These paradigms just didn’t necessarily represent good design - or at least, not design that will be able to move the needle and serve cannabis as a product into the mainstream today.
“Before marijuana was legalised, the plant’s design aesthetic was somewhere between the tie-dyed patterns of the Grateful Dead, the Rastafarian colour palette of Bob Marley, and the Jamaican flag. But that’s starting to change,” says Scott Kirkwood, a Creative director at the National Geographic Society.
During the “Reefer Madness” of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, cannabis gained a bad reputation as a substance abused by hippies and stoners who surely lacked any discipline or ambition. Labelled a gateway drug, it represented the corruption of innocence and the manifestation of evil - the tacit enemy of those invested in a white picket fence lifestyle.
So it makes complete sense that modern cannabis design would want to shed this tainted former skin entirely - especially when much of it is now trying to appeal to the people living behind those fences. To achieve this, it has to strip away these stereotypes and instead instil consumers with a sense of trust, relatability, familiarity, security and overall wholesomeness when it comes to cannabis products.
As writer Lucy Bourton muses: “The conundrum with cannabis is a multi-layered one that, in short, stems from the fact that its visual history doesn’t match with newfound consumers – and the story its investors are attempting to write.”
“The overarching question is how does one appeal to a wide swathe of consumers? Do you interact with a longstanding cannabis consumer by relying on “stoner culture” visuals, but risk frightening someone sitting on the fence? How, then, do you speak to those interested in its medical benefits without appearing stale and uninformed?”
PACKAGING & BRANDING
This conundrum was grappled with in the first wave of reimagined, contemporary cannabis design, which followed on from the legalisation of medical marijuana and CBD.
These early brands aimed to earn the purchases of chronically ill patients and anxious everyday people through the design of what you might call placatory cannabis products, whose branding and packaging did not look dissimilar from the other bottles and boxes you’d find on pharmacy and health shop shelves.
Over the past couple of decades, the legalisation movement - specifically in the USA, where it has been most extensive - learned to speak the language of therapeutic use, while recreational use took a back seat.
With simple, sterile branding, formal fonts, neutral packing, and messaging focused on medicine, science and education, brands like cbdMD, NuLeaf Naturals, Dr Kerklaan Thereapeutics, MedTerra, CBDPure and (locally) Elixinol gained credence, popularity and success in their designated lane.
But with the rapidly spreading rate of recreational legalisation globally, brands marketing to both recreational and medicinal users are increasingly interested in gaining visual legitimacy. They seek a creative and novel edge that will not only slough off the seedy stigma of stoner days gone by, but also propel their brand forward into the future with a more playful and progressive edge.
The CBD brands of the second wave like Hemp Juice, Prismatic Plants, Dosist, Gossamer, Frigg, Hi Stevie and (locally) Mary’s Muse predictably lie somewhere in the middle. Keeping the clean aesthetic of their more therapeutically focused predecessors, but with an increasingly broad and legal market they are able to have more fun with sexy minimalism, brighter colours and more modern graphics.
But on the furthest end of the spectrum, the recreationally focused brands of the third wave like Sonder, Besito, Cann, Flower by Edie Parker, Ojo Rojo and Sundae School are truly free to go to town - psychedelic colours, retro fonts, and some trippy graphic elements that give a cheeky, nostalgic wink back to those groovy decades when products like theirs would have been shunned.
Another notable area where design is flourishing in the cannabis industry is in the category of product design - particularly in terms of smoking paraphernalia.
Gone are the days of cheap plastic bongs printed with Simpsons characters and iridescent glass pipes shaped like the tail of a dragon. Smokeware has metamorphosed from something that makes you cringe to something you can’t tear your eyes away from.
An ever increasing number of brands have turned smoking gear into home decor (think: Debbie Carlos, Summerland and Seth Rogen’s Houseplant and the pipes we stock by Laundry Day), literal antiques (see: the repurposed vases of Functional China), and actual pieces of art.
If you think that’s an overstatement, journalist Sam Holleran notes that “Many of the smoking devices on Tetra’s (‘an accessories brand offering thoughtfully designed smoking objects for aesthetically minded people’) website look as if they would fit in well at a Japanese tea ceremony, evoking both the rusticity of raku ware and the dynamism of Streamline Moderne.”
“An ashtray by ceramicist Ben Medansky looks like an element from an El Lissitzky collage and draws inspiration from the “radial fins on machinery” the artist spots around his Los Angeles home. A marbled porcelain pipe by Christina Haines resembles one of the walls from Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion rolled up on itself.”
“The elegance of the pipes pulls them away from the predictable and ironic gear of the pothead past and places them in an art historical timeline that goes back to Silk Road nargillas and the ivory pipes of the Dutch Golden Age.”
Tetra co-founder Eviana Hartman has a much simpler take on the range, noting that “In the past, the smoking ritual has been dragged into ‘bro culture’. Now, it is something that is very special and worth celebrating. We wanted to create pipes you wouldn’t be ashamed to have out on your coffee table.”
In recent years, vapes have also had a tech-y glow up. Be it the sexy and sleek, metallic sheened designs of Pax (the “iPod of vaporisers” stocked on our site), Omura, or Vessel, these gadgets make for a subtle, sleek and status-symbolling means of getting high.
And while some old school cannafans may be sceptical of taking their hits from high brow devices, Holleran believes devices like these are simply another facet rather than a total shift of cannabis culture. “New ‘smoking-lifestyle’ retailers represent a move towards Cannabis 2.0: a sophisticated way of ingesting marijuana that shows a new relationship with the forbidden flora.”
But arguably the most interesting aspect of cannabis design, one that is actively attempting to forge new relationships and real life experiences between people and the plant, is that of retail design in dispensaries.
With their custom-built beechwood shop fittings, glass displays, warm lighting, strains stored in high quality humidors and ‘budtenders’ ready to hold your hand and walk you through your options, dispensaries in the USA and Canada like Farnsworth Fine Cannabis, Serra, Alchemy, Superette and Edition X are turning your weekly weed purchases into an experience that could not be more far removed from your usual drive-by dealer drop off.
Of course the aim is to provide regular users with a place to buy their greens, but also to imbue a sense of security, comfort, traceability and legitimacy into the act of obtaining your stash. Not only that, but they serve to provide a safe space (some even feature private consultation rooms) in which people can openly and unashamedly ask questions, which helps to educate and provide guidance to those who are maybe still on the fence about the 420 lifestyle.
Johnnie Rush, a leading expert in cannabis store design, is a big proponent of this kind of approach. “To come in without the intention of buying something because you want to learn is something we’ve taken advantage of in creating multipurpose retail spaces that can function as almost classrooms or presentation spaces. In the evenings, two or three nights a week, some of these spaces will invite the community to come in and learn the difference between THC and CBD, for instance.”
The fascinating thing about Rush is that before he started in the cannabis industry he worked for 17 years as vice president and lead architect of Disney’s ‘imagineering’ team, designing its major retail and entertainment experiences. Now he’s the brains behind dispensaries like Pineapple Express, Enlightened and The Grass Monkey and the recreational cannabis space Root’d.
And when asked if there were any similarities between the two, he said there absolutely was - and it all came down to the idea of the suspension of disbelief. “There is the creation of an environment where you can transport someone, or convey this idea that belief is suspended because now you’re in a different place and it has a different feel.”
In other words, the store’s design should be used to make people feel confident in cannabis because the space is so professional, safe and beautiful that it enables them to believe in the plant and its benefits, when their existing preconceptions may otherwise have prevented them from doing so.
This is, of course, a strategy used in most retail design. But Rush believes in adapting some of the best practises from mainstream retail and applying them to an industry that is still somewhat shady, and unsafe feeling.
The same method was even used by Curioso, a design firm in Chicago who used their long history of restaurant, hotel and resort clients as a guideline when it came to making sure everyone visiting their clients’ dispensaries were of legal age. Instead of having a bouncer-like figure at the door checking IDs like you might see at the entrance of a seedy club, they came up with a hospitality-like concierge desk to greet customers at the front door.
Megan Stone -the aptly named founder of High Road Studios which specialises exclusively in the cannabis industry and has done branding and design for over 50 dispensaries across 15 American states and Canada including Maitri Medicinals, Trulieve, Synchronicity Holistic and Gnome Grown - is also a proponent of the experiential approach.
She got into her niche profession by way of working in dispensaries while at design school, which was when she began wondering why microbreweries, wine shops and even frozen yoghurt cafés were getting overhauled while dispensaries still felt “seedy and gross.”
Her firm now aims to change that, attempting to create cannabis spaces that are inviting, welcoming and not overly exclusive. Because with all the projects she takes on, Stone tries to use subtle details to honour the culture and history of cannabis and its “hard-fought battle to become mainstream.”
DESIGN, FOR GOOD
Of course, this alludes to the flip side of the design coin, where many insist that the move towards what is, arguably, a gentrification of cannabis through high end products and dispensaries like these is harmful to the true culture of the plant, and to the people historically persecuted for selling it in the time before it became a luxury commodity.
A completely understandable viewpoint, and one that designers like Stone, as well as Gossamer’s von Pfetten and her fellow founder David Weiner are acutely aware of.
“You have dispensaries making within the tens of millions of dollars a month selling cannabis, and then you have largely men of colour imprisoned for doing the exact same thing, on a much smaller scale,” says Weiner. “That, for lack of a better word, is deeply fucked up.”
For Weiner and von Pfetten, they see their bi-annual Gossamer magazine as “a bit of a Trojan horse; to use beautiful design, wit, cleverness and well-told stories to help advance certain political stances in terms of social equity, social justice and prison reform.” And their hope is that others in their industry will put their skills to good use for the cause of cannabis too.
“We would really encourage anyone with a design, editorial or creative sensibility to think about – yes, how they can apply it from a business perspective – but also whether there are people in the space who are attempting to make it a more equal industry for all, and hopefully drive awareness.”
Stone also believes that while there is probably no real way to stop the steam train of legalisation and commercialisation, good design in the cannabis industry with an ethical and engaged mindset behind it has the capacity to improve the general perception of the plant on the whole.
She hopes that her work and that of other cannabis design specialists can help to flip the switch on antiquated cannabis stereotypes, and start to create a new language that doesn’t yet exist. “There's a different angle people need to see this industry through,” she says. “Every space I design is a chance to change people's minds about it.”
Von Pfetten agrees. “An understanding of branding is something that might elevate the conversation. We don’t say that to present it as a luxury item, but to help de-stigmatise it in a way that might be a little more engaging, encouraging and open for consumers.