The cannabis conundrum: How should designers navigate the marijuana business?
It’s a visually rich playground for designers, but – since its recent partial legalisation and de-stigmatisation – the cannabis space appears to be having an identity crisis.
When thinking about design in terms of consumerism, there are few products that don’t already have an inherent visual identity. Take alcohol, for instance – anyone can visually identify that a frosted bottle with cold, bold branding and a red colour palette is vodka. Rum too follows a similar pattern. Despite being drunk all over the world, its identity will likely be tied to the culture of the West Indies, or reference its nautical, seemingly pirate-loving history.
That's not to say that designers do not attempt to shape the visual personality of products, it’s just honestly very difficult to think of a product and not know what it “looks” like already. However, through its gradual legalisation and consistent de-stigmatisation, cannabis has recently presented itself as an unknown design entity – and as a result, is having a bit of an identity crisis.
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. There are many questions this conundrum poses to a designer, followed then by counter queries, depending on where you are based.
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? Even with a design outlook decided, how do you then design within the remit of the laws of your state (if in the US) or federal restrictions (if in Uruguay or, most recently, Canada)? Above all this, how does a designer then respond to their own moral obligations of gaining profit from a product many remain imprisoned for?
There are numerous cannabis-focused businesses emerging, which not only answer many of these questions, but continue to ask them. A prominent example is Gossamer, a magazine and lifestyle company “for people who also smoke weed”, started by David Weiner and Verena von Pfetten. A media platform which includes printed matter and product under its cannabis umbrella, “it was wild to us that when looking at all the different categories – whether it’s beauty or travel, news, culture and art – that there was nothing approaching cannabis with the same design sensibility,” Verena tells It’s Nice That. “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.”
“Cannabis consumers are multitudes”Gossamer's David Weiner
Since launching in 2017, David and Verena have spent much time evaluating the character of a cannabis consumer. The immediate realisation was how “cannabis consumers are multitudes,” says David. “An architect or doctor, a taxi driver or teacher. Yes, they consume cannabis but it’s not the thing that necessarily defines their life. Although, for a lot of people, it is a very important part of their lives and do identify as such – privately or publicly.”
Gossamer entering the industry at this point is not only creatively clever but a smart business decision. Interacting with cannabis a few years ago gave you an entirely different reputation to today, where the cannabinoid spectrum has unfolded to reveal a whole host of choices. For instance, the most recently heard strand is Cannabidiol (CBD) which, unlike the cannabis-related nightmare you may have had in your teenage years, is not psychoactive. Recognised for its ability to ease anxiety or pain symptoms, CBD here in the UK is legal to manufacture (via growing hemp industrially and extracting it), and CBD oil may be sold as long it contains a maximum THC content (the psychoactive part) of 0.2 per cent. In the US, where Gossamer operates out of New York, CBD is also federally legal (dependent on the state you may need a prescription to purchase it, such as in Virginia) if it contains up to 0.3 per cent THC.
“What’s interesting about CBD, and obviously cannabis on the whole, is how broad the demographics of our consumer is,” explains Verena specifically when discussing Dusk, Gossamer’s own CBD product engineered to help users rest easily using other, lesser-known cannabinoids and terpenes. “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’.”
In turn, Gossamer’s approach to depicting cannabis doesn’t rely on the tropes of high culture from the 60s and 70s through to the 90s, and sees no harm in referencing the silly joy of getting stoned. Through a personally adopted “high low” attitude, the pair is thought-provoking while not losing “track of the fact that fun is fun, funny is funny and cool is cool,” as David puts it. “You don’t have to be super over-designed or buttoned-up to have a point of view. In fact, have a little more personality or room for error, creativity and play.”
This attitude is displayed in little, noticeable touches throughout an issue of Gossamer. For instance, a recent release threaded a choose-your-own-adventure style feature through its pages, with one possible ending leading the reader to be eaten by a dinosaur. Further decisions, such as the paper stock used for its cover (in its case stippled), were purposefully chosen, because “if you’re under a certain influence” the feel of a magazine is suddenly very important: “Soft touch is something people can have a really bad reaction to if stoned.” Most recently, it released its first venture into clothing with the Dogwalker. Part dressing gown, part coat: “It’s like wearing an edible.” All of this is housed under a tagline which appears under Gossamer’s letterhead with no further explanation needed: “High Quality”.
With Gossamer, David and Verena are proving how the cannabis industry can be a literal playground for the tiny details creative types often get hung up on. Above all else, it’s jumped on the simple fact that “cannabis is a sensory experience” and has run with it. “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 Verena. “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.”
In its mindful, diligent and design-forward approach, Gossamer is a considered example of how to build a brand around cannabis consumption. It is, however, their approach, begun from the seed of David and Verena’s own long-standing relationship to cannabis. A similar company in another part of the world could – and should – be encouraged to follow an entirely different blueprint. It’s this factor that puts cannabis forward as a fascinating brand to construct, one product with multifaceted personalities.
In the UK, for instance, designing for cannabis is pretty much a blank canvas. Considering the first cannabis-based medicine only became available in 2015, it has no (legal) design heritage to pull from – unless you look to before cannabis laws were introduced in 1928. “If you’re going to delve into the history and narrative of cannabis in the UK what does that mean? What’s the history? Where are your cues from?” questions David when discussing the opportunity for someone in his position across the pond. “It’s a really interesting design challenge or thesis for designers. I’m really excited and curious to see what the market could be like… Everybody is starting on equal footing.”
“I have never, and probably never will, take cannabis. I don't even drink coffee!”Eddie Opara
Another point David and Verena are keen to make is that this industry is not only open to those who have a prior relationship to cannabis and, particularly in the UK, this could lead to unexpected design outcomes. “Americans love weed more than any other country, basically,” David continues, only half-jokingly. “In the UK it’s a different culture. The large takeaway, for a designer anyway, is that if you’ve never smoked a joint in your life, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be occupying the space. It’s the people who don’t have that history that can bring a fresh set of eyes to what it is, and will be.”
A designer with experience of operating within this space is Eddie Opara. A New York-based Pentagram partner – whose cannabis-focused work includes the design of Green: A Field Guide to Marijuana and the identity branding of cannabis product Sula – he has no experience with the effects of cannabis: “I have never, and probably never will, take cannabis. I don't even drink coffee!” he tells It’s Nice That.
When designers are taught how to truthfully represent a subject they are working with, a personal interest is often seen as beneficial. However, as David outlines, cannabis-based products may be the exception to this rule, and Eddie agrees. “Coming at it from an entirely different tangent is, my clients have noticed, incredibly profitable. Avoiding the standardised pitfalls of yesteryear, or even currently, is what we've tried to do.”
What attracted Eddie to designing within this space was the actual scientific nature of Sula. Created by Dispersa Labs, and literally fabricated within a lab, Sula is the first dry powder cannabis-based product meaning users can appreciate the benefits of cannabidiol without smoking. Honing in on this as the product’s USP, the designer’s team at Pentagram adopted the approach of bringing “that sense of advance technology and advancing premium together in the product style that we generated”.
Visually, this involved implementing a friendly but sophisticated typographic focus, choosing Commercial Type’s Robinson as the brand’s logo. A sans serif with sharp, calligraphic flare, it implements just the right amount of quirk. Elsewhere, hints of playfulness are signalled in Sula’s choice of colour palette, chosen to reflect the feeling cannabis induces, as well as the commissioning of Manshen Lo to create the illustrated instructions. Each decision throughout the process was made for the “particular, and clear, principle behind it”, and the overall branding relates back to why Eddie was keen to work with the brand in the first place, describing Dispersa Labs as having a “sense of being open and innovative, and not overly carefree.”
Eddie’s is just one approach to designing for cannabis consumers, however, and particularly in areas where cannabis is entirely legal, the design community is seeing its myriad personalities. Specifically, in the context of North America, this is developing as separate regional accents; a cannabis-based product in Colorado, for example, will speak with a different design dialect to that of California. This in itself makes cannabis a unique and quite odd product to be working with. To only design for a regional audience is a “rare thing in this world,” says David. “It’s really interesting, and a very outdated way of thinking” – it’s difficult to think of another campaign only concentrated on one location, other than electoral bids or sports teams.
“How do you stand out, or stand apart, when there are all these restrictions in place to make things look the same?”Gossamer
One could argue that each product is representative of the feel and clientele within a state, but realistically, a cannabis-based product’s design is largely influenced by the limitations placed on it as a closed market. Within this, governmental rules are some of the strictest on design, making it largely impossible to design something intuitive for a consumer, or distinctive in comparison to your competitors. This whole process is also entirely new, and governments are working out legal requirements as designers begin to input them. “California is a good example,” Verena points out. “It’s changed its packaging restrictions maybe six to eight times. Every time that happens, a brand or company needs to literally throw out everything, from form factor or the requirements of colour and logo size or label, and start over – start again from scratch.”
In Canada, where cannabis has been a legal product since 2018 and for medicinal purposes since 2001, the design restrictions remain equally strict. As described in Graphic Arts Mag, the restrictions on cannabis’ “look, feel and function” include: “Matte finish required on exterior”, “No raised features (e.g embossing)”, “No brand elements beyond those allowed under regulations”, “No images, except opening instructions” and “No cut-out windows”, to name only a few. Typefaces alone are extremely specific, including the restrictions that, if used, letterings must be “regular weight and width”, “minimum type size = 6pt”, “minimum leading = 7pt”, “displayed on a white background, with minimum 6pt margin”, “black only” AND “the same sans serif font used in the health warning (except for brand name, which can be any font and colour)” – at least they give you that.
You could argue that these restrictions are more than enough to scare any agency, let alone an individual creative, away from working with cannabis as a product. However, for Gossamer, this provides the most interesting challenge of all: “How do you stand out, or stand apart, when there are all these restrictions in place to make things look the same?”
A studio that has met this challenge is Blok, a Toronto-based creative agency which tackled these restrictions in its branding, packaging and product design for 48North. A cannabis company “focused on the health and wellness market” with a particular female focus, Blok was tasked with visually interpreting the entire brand, and its ethos, from the ground up.
The project marked its first journey into the cannabis space after much consideration; Blok’s initial concern was to ensure it could approach the project with time, and a high-level of thought. The obvious place to start was 48North’s strategy, “which helped a lot because we then understood the foundations,” points out Vanessa Eckstein, Blok’s creative director. This understanding then allowed the studio to tackle unavoidable restrictions with confidence, looking “at the challenges and finding the spaces in between,” to fill with nuance.
These challenges included not being able to use any photography in the identity design, nor reference the obvious leaf in its branding either. “We had so many legal constraints to what we could do,” Vanessa elaborates. But – and admittedly “by default” – “the constraints became the possibilities,” she explains. With a human approach where emotion sat at the forefront of the work, 48North’s branding became a designed wink as to what the product actually was. “Everything was insinuation. We would shoot the shadow of a plant, or illustrate a gesture of green. It made you feel like we were talking about cannabis, but we couldn’t show it.”
In turn, Blok’s approach to 48North’s branding developed an environment: “A place that is safe, and actually an invitation to discover more.” This too was led by the design team’s own discovery, working with one of the very few brands in the space, let alone in one of the very few places where cannabis is legal across the country. When asking Vanessa if, on reflection, she would want for the constraints to have been nonexistent, she defiantly says no. “There’s always constraints. It makes you rethink the project and the obvious falls apart. It becomes more thoughtful, more intuitive, than if you had the instant solution. I’m happy we had them. It ended up giving us the visual language that we maybe wouldn’t have explored.”
Yet, even if you have a consumer identified, and a thoughtful approach decided, one of the most important considerations as a designer looking to navigate within the cannabis space is to realise the social and moral obligations attached to it.
Criminality and cannabis are intertwined, and it’s a subject which has left many disenfranchised. Pentagram’s Eddie Opara relays his own thoughts on the subject, specifically as a British designer now in New York. Although never interacting with cannabis himself, while growing up in London the designer looked at cannabis “from the point of view that: I don’t know why this is illegal,” he recalls. “It smells really great, my mates are having great fun and enjoying themselves. I don’t have a problem with this at all from an ethical standpoint. And then I moved to New York and you start to see a different situation.”
Eddie’s shift in feeling is largely centred around the city’s Rockefeller Drug Laws, which enforced lengthy prison times if an individual was found with a certain amount of illegal substance. “This is what happened to large swathes of African American males in deprived neighbourhoods of the city. Right now, there are a lot of guys in prison for selling cannabis. Not even selling it, just smoking it, they’re in prison for it and not out yet,” he continues. “In the black neighbourhoods that’s happening, in the white neighbourhoods that hasn’t happened. It becomes a very problematic issue for me. Cannabis has actually helped more people than hindered from one point of view, but in another it’s harmed for no reason whatsoever.”
With this in mind, Eddie’s own decision to enter this space from a design perspective was led by a want “to really get into the science of it,” but also the fact that the situation is changing. “The fact that the former speaker of the house in Obama’s administration, John Boehner, is on a board dealing with cannabidiol products and saying that we don’t understand what the stigma is, this shouldn’t be happening, and we need to change these laws.”
“It also matters that we play our role in building a fairer society”Valentina Milanova
Even if these laws do change, and have begun to change, a creative must recognise that there are not only financial opportunities, “but an incredible opportunity to do good, which doesn’t necessarily require money,” Gossamer’s Verena points out. The simple fact is that while exciting in numerous ways, cannabis is problematic: “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 David. “That, for lack of a better word, is deeply fucked up.”
In their case, the pair describes attempting to use Gossamer like “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.” It’s also within this area that a designer can use their creative skills for larger, greater good, without restrictions. A marketing budget is rarely a must for non-profits and “graphic design or editorial content is not where they can put their money,” says Verena. “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.”
A newly launched business which embodies Verena’s point is Daye, a women’s health research and development company. With an aim to “bridge the gender pain gap” its first project is a much-needed, clinically validated CBD-infused tampon, a world first. Valentina Milanova, its founder, first had the idea for Daye when investigating the industrial hemp space. Reading several research papers on the plant, she learned that its “fibres are more absorbent than cotton and the extract from its flower can be analgesic,” she says. “I then had the idea to combine the two into one product, which would deliver better absorbency and quick menstrual pain relief.”
Not only is Daye a genuinely useful product but Valentina, alongside content editor Liv Cassano, have surrounded it with further engaging reading. “A big part of our mission is democratising access to women’s health education and research,” says Valentina. Daye demonstrates this primarily through its content platform, Vitals, “available to every woman, who wants to improve her understanding of her sexual, menstrual and reproductive health.” Its pieces to date are vast in breadth and consistently eye-opening too, from a piece on “Yes, Period Poo is Real” to advice on how to treat and prevent a UTI. Its design also positions Daye as a mature, but welcoming product within both the CBD sphere as well as femcare. Built upon the realisation “that the majority of women’s health products and services today over-index on the colour pink, images of roses, and an outdated idea of what femininity is,” Valentina’s expression appears like a wise, cooler older sibling.
If making a well-designed, medically proven product which speaks with confidence in the hushed conversation around women’s health doesn’t have you sold, Daye also keeps the moral considerations of working with cannabis front of mind: “It also matters that we play our role in building a fairer society, which is why we manufacture in the UK, employing women, who used to be part of the prison system, and offset the carbon emissions of our entire operations.”
On this point, there is also a necessity to ensure inclusion remains at the forefront of visuals when it comes to a product like cannabis. Following the rise in acceptance towards its medical benefits, cannabis has equally been engulfed in “wellness” culture. Marketing in this area which moves more towards lifestyle concepts often, “is very white,” Verena points out.
From Gossamer’s perspective, in the US, “if you look at a fair amount of CBD or wellness brands, you’ll find lots of white models, white women laughing, white women on the beach,” she continues. “There is a course correction that needs to happen from a design perspective to make sure that people are being represented in the fullest form in terms of who consumes drugs across all races, all genders and all socio-economic, geographic backgrounds.” In elevating the reputation of cannabis, there is a high risk of not truly representing it.
In turn, despite the opinions which surround cannabis, and the many thoughts that may consume a designer while attempting to engage with it, it is a product and it needs to be designed like any other. What’s more, all of these products should be designed with the high level of consideration which cannabis warrants.
While discussing this point with Blok’s Vanessa, she relayed a story about the predicament of justifying the fact she was working with a cannabis-based product to her 13-year-old son. “At the time, I didn’t know if we were making the right choice in taking this,” she tells us. The creative director’s son knew personally that his mother had repeatedly, morally, said no to operating within this space. An inquisitive teenager, “at the time I had to answer to my son,” she tells us, “I had to have my own explanation.”
It’s rare that you hear of many other creative directors considering the thoughts of those outside their design circle when accepting a job – but, maybe, what our community can learn from working with such a polarising product is that we should. There are many reasons not to work with a high-profile brand, for instance, but if the budget and the opportunity are there we often find ourselves saying yes. Would we be so willing if we knew those close would question such a decision, if it was something so newly legalised, or, to be fair, if the design restrictions were as strict as limiting your font size?
The resulting experience of these considerations proved, to Gossamer, Eddie, Daye and Blok, that approaching design with an open and sensitive frame of mind may be the best approach, outside and within this space. As Vanessa puts it, “It expanded us, both as a company and as individuals,” she says. “It made us grow.”
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.