Green rush: what is it like designing for the US pot industry? R/m users tell

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Since cannabis was legalized for recreational use in 11 US states and medically allowed in another 22, the industry is opening up, attracting new clients and money. It’s estimated that legal marijuana could be a $57 billion market by 2027. So, there is a growing push for green grow brands to have a voice, and designers are coming up with new ideas. We asked two Readymag users what it’s like designing for this budding market.

The first is Sam Snyder, the co-founder of The Secret Garden Co. — a Chicago-based cannabis-wellness and design blog. The second is Becki Kozel, the Creative Director of The Bad Collective — a design team from Brooklyn whose work mostly revolves around the food, beverage, and weed industries. Both projects have recently been featured in Readymag’s Explore gallery. Also, we’ve recently published an interview with Becki.

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How has legalization changed the industry?

Sam: Since legalization there are a variety of new consumers entering the market. For instance, anyone looking for day-to-day pain relief or who wants to try microdosing to relieve anxiety and tension.

It’s allowing brands to take a step back and say, “Okay, we want to take more of a stand than just making products with cannabis. We want to explore how can we help our consumer and how to market more specifically.”

There’s no roadmap for this industry, so we’re making it day-by-day, which is so thrilling to me, especially as a designer.

Becki: It’s pretty exciting to be working in these times — we tend to draw a lot of parallels to the post-Prohibition era here in the US in the 1930s.

For the first time, we’re seeing big agencies tackling the issues of designing and marketing cannabis. Ten years ago, the idea of designing advertisements to market weed to middle-aged women, athletes, the high society set, and medical professionals would be totally laughable. The whole situation is surreal.—Becki Kozel

Right now, the challenge is to shake off the stigma, reach new markets, and set yourself apart in an industry flooded with money and product. We’re on the forefront of something big. It’s a new territory, and it really feels like there are no rules.

What kind of visual language was associated with the cannabis industry before legalization?

Sam: A lot of the design that you see prior to state-by-state legalization is really drippy, saturated, and psychedelic. This visual language is not for everybody — some customers are still afraid of cannabis and aren’t so inclined to use a product that looks deeply psychedelic, because it doesn’t reflect their point of view or lifestyle.

Becki: In the illegal drug trade, branding was complicated. Yet, it was as important as in any other market: crucial to gaining consumer trust, repeat customers, selling a lifestyle along with the product.

The competition and consumer base were murky, as everything was operated underground. I think all of this made it easier for the industry to collectively sit on an aesthetic for decades. For weed, it was this tacky Bob Marley poster bullshit. — Becki Kozel

Young men were viewed as the primary demographic, so it stuck. It was so bad. Everything looked like it was for sale next to the male-enhancement supplements in a gas station.

So, the industry needs to redefine itself — how do you see it evolving in the future?

Sam: Our key design goal now is to explain cannabis products to consumers and break down the social stigma around it.

With design, we aim to combat the idea that anyone who uses marijuana is a lazy stoner and help people realize that cannabis is a tool you can use for your own self-care.—Sam Snyder

For example, the company I work for, Green Thumb Industries (GTI), has a brand called Rythm. Within it, there are four different strains: Balance, Heal, Energize, and Relax. We brand each product to explain the effect that it may have — that’s really helping bring new customers. People see that the product can be used in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons.

The industry also needs more user research — that’s helpful for design, and for the ultimate user experience as well.

Becki: A lot of cannabis brands are moving toward a “luxury” feel: everything has embossed gold leaf, and products are being presented as very moneyed and luxurious. It seems to be the hard reaction to the pre-legalization cannabis aesthetic. To me, that’s just super boring. It gets stale so fast.

We believe companies should refrain from taking themselves so seriously. At the end of the day, cannabis is something that people use mostly for recreation, to have fun, to relax, to stimulate themselves creatively — medical applications aside of course. —Becki Kozel

As a collective, we want to keep the spirit of cannabis culture alive: fun, young, upbeat, engaging and forward-thinking, and not go super conservative in the name of legitimacy.

We’re also seeing women as a big consumer base. Of course, women have always smoked weed, but now it’s safe and relatively destigmatized to buy marijuana. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be able to purchase weed in a store instead of letting a strange man into my car or apartment. I think we’re going to see a lot more female-focused branding as the industry opens up.

Are there any rockstar companies setting design trends in the cannabis market?

Sam: Yes, definitely. There’s a variety of cannabrands doing amazing things. Sunday Goods speaks directly to me as a consumer — especially my age range and demographic. Their packaging is just gorgeous.

I’d say incredibles is an awesome GTI brand that began by setting trends — making chocolate that actually tastes good, and not like cannabis. Initially, the brand was started by people whose family members were going through chemo. At the time incredibles had the typical look of an old-school cannabrand, which is great, but not relevant to a variety of consumers. Now we’re helping incredibles upgrade the look, tone and feel, to make the brand visually accessible to a larger consumer base. However, we need to be careful not to completely disregard their roots. Marrying the old-school look with a modern take is going to be crucial to the visual success of the brand.

Other trend-setting cannabrands are Foria and Quim. I learned that Quim is apparently a dirty word for vagina in Britain, but when I initially heard the word, I thought, “That’s such a cool name. I wonder what it’s about.” It’s actually a cannabis lube. I find so much inspiration from brands that are finding new ways to use cannabis and help people, so that we’re not just having the same kind of experience every time. We’re exploring what cannabis can really do, holistically, for the body and mind.

Becki: I love Northern Organics — a small east LA area farm that brands all their strains with the help of Ben Klevay aka SheChimp, a local artist and sign painter. They’ve also done some with the wonderful artist Lilian Martinez, aka BFGF. Every season they work with a different local artist. It’s really bare-bones stuff: just simple screw-top glass jars with these wonderful labels — but it really speaks to their dedication to the community and creating quality products.

We also love Old Pal — another California brand that is really nailing that 70’s psychedelia look in a way that feels really fresh. Definitely harder to do than it sounds. I love the chaotic, DIY way they use type — the way they’ve dialed in their aesthetic is really clever, and their timing couldn’t be better as we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the iconic Woodstock festival. I think a lot of young people feel nostalgia for that era that they missed, especially considering the socio-political parallels you can draw between that generation of young people and Millennials / Gen Z-ers. They’re really nailing it. Plus, their Instagram is great.

Describe one of your recent works for the cannabis industry.

Sam: Let me speak about my concept design for Dogwalker, a small cannabrand producing pre-rolls under GTI. The whole idea is centered around Ben Kovler, the CEO of GTI, his dog Bailey, and how important Bailey is to their family. Ben wanted a brand that would explore the kinship between dogs and humans. The Dogwalker joint is just a really nice way to have some time with your dog and go out and explore the world together. Dogwalker has three different varieties that they use: Sit, Stay, and Play.

Sit is the indica-dominant strain. It makes you feel pretty chill and relaxed. That’s the little dog with his feet up in the air: I wanted to show this dog as if he found a nice patch of sunlight to enjoy, showing his belly to the world.

Stay is the hybrid. In my design, I have a dog sitting in a cave, and he’s looking out into the world and having a nice moment with himself. Yet he’s alert and awake, and able to take things in.

For the sativa, Play, I drew a playful dog with a little floaty around his waist. He has been inside all winter, so now it’s summer, and he’s super excited to get out and play. That’s really what the sativa blend is all about, just having that really active, fun, playful, approach to life.

While my rebrand was just an exercise, Dogwalker has since completely rebranded by a great design company called High Dive.

Becki: Recently we’ve been working on a really fun project called Baked. The majority of the work we do is in the food industry, and we’re always looking to bridge the gap between food, beverage, and cannabis. Baked started out as a question — what weird, embarrassing but possibly genius meals do you eat when you’re stoned and alone? We interviewed some of our chef friends, developed recipes, cooked, styled, and shot the dishes, and then created a social media campaign. It ended up coming out great, and now we’re developing it into a cookbook.

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The look for the whole campaign is totally wacky, super technicolor sleaze. It’s very us. We have a great in-house photo team that did some really fabulous work, which made the design a total cakewalk. Plus, the shoot was so fun. I’ll never get over that I get to roll joints and draw weed for a living. Surreal in the best way possible.

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