Medical marijuana packaging is a new frontier. And Jeff Johnson, founder, owner and design of Replace in Minneapolis, has just completed a brand and packaging system for Vireo cannabis products. It is incredible to think that what was once illegal and sold in plastic bags now has a bona fide design system. I asked Johnson to discuss the project. During our conversation he also mentioned his venture Replace Everything: “It is my answer to Threadless, which I believe to be corrosive to the soul of both design and designers. Threadless … chooses from tens of thousands of free designs, picks the best and sends pennies on the dollar to the ‘lucky’ designer,” he explains. “I loathe that model. After the election we all responded in different ways. I responded by beginning to put my massive 25-year design archive for sale to fund five great charities. 50% of all the profits from Replace Everything goes to five awesome charities. There are several Minneapolis businesses that have moved to this model. We have put a lot of time and money into this new model—and I simply love it.” Now, let’s get back to the marijuana.
Medical marijuana is going to be a huge industry. Is this among the first of these products to be branded in this unified manner?
Vireo is a national leader as a unified medical cannabis brand. As a design team, we needed to echo that leadership. There are not many medical cannabis brands that speak with a unified voice, and we felt is was crucial for Vireo to speak with its unique voice. Not just across their large product line, but also across their geographic business centers. Vireo is an industry leader in medical cannabis treatment options. The cost of admission for any leader is being the first to discover new ground. Vireo needed a design voice and strategy that could be extended across a multi-state platform that was in compliance with new federal guidelines. The brand needs to speak with ONE voice, yet maintain its regional independence. This, of course, is no easy task, but it’s a challenge we run towards. We’ve been designing disruptive brands in the alternative health and wellness world for decades. I have been waiting for a client like Vireo for my entire career to show how you can use the language and advantages of the unified design approach to better communicate the benefits of medical cannabis. We are extremely honored to be working on this brand, but to be honest, we weren’t 100% sold on designing for this industry until we met the founder of Vireo, Dr. Kyle Kingsley. He opened our eyes to the intense need for alternatives to opioid-based pain relief. After that, we were ready to unleash all the tricks and skills we have in our design arsenal. As the industry grows, we are seeing more and more medical marijuana companies starting to realize the importance of creating a brand that people trust, and brand identity design will play a hugely important part in helping people overcome the deep-seeded negativity toward cannabis.
How did you get the job, and what were your marching orders?
We met this client through old-school cold-calling and shoe leather. No joke. We called them up, introduced ourselves, and explained the philosophy behind our design mission. As a business, Vireo is 100% in sync with our design and business philosophy to make old destructive business models obsolete by improving and replacing them.
The marching orders from the client were simple: To increase the perceived design value of the brand to better introduce medical cannabis as a physician-prescribed, healthier solution. The opioid epidemic in the United States is incredibly destructive, and medical cannabis provides a better solution for those patients dealing with chronic pain without the harmful side effects of opium-based pharmaceuticals. Vireo wanted to instill trust in customers and let them feel safe and comfortable with every brand interaction. The challenge was to walk the line between the more sterile visual language of pharmaceutical companies and the welcoming vibrance and energy of modern cannabis or wellness brands. We accepted those orders gladly and began our work in earnest.
The legal requirements and regulations are restrictive, daunting and detailed. A quick example is the strict labeling guidelines and child-resistant containers. These requirements may be at the root of why most medical cannabis brands have such beaten-down and complicated design solutions.
We needed to keep “Freedom from Pain” in the forefront of the design communication, not “Terms and Conditions.” The client completely understood what we were trying to do as brand designers: We were simply and honestly trying to echo the brand value with our brand design.
Neither you nor I smoke grass, but was it weird for you to be doing a project like this that is seeped in taboo?
I know you and I have always been pretty nerdy about marijuana. I was the classic early ’80s “Straight-Edge” punk rocker. In your case, being surrounded by marijuana smoke in the ’60s pushed you wisely in the other direction. Interestingly enough, the founder of Vireo was not a recreational user of cannabis—he was an emergency room physician that simply abhorred the results of opioid overdoses, day after day. As far as taboo, the only raised eyebrows we’ve experienced are from those curious about the medical benefits. I think the time of what we call the “Marley Effect” is on its way out.
As a designer, you know that we are always speaking on behalf of our clients regardless of our specific personal histories. I’ve always felt that speaking with distinction and clarity is what we call “being good.” I want to be the best designer possible for every one of my clients, Steven. That means I have to quickly get into the head spaces of both the clients and, more importantly, their customers and patients. I am not a global banker, but I design for The World Bank. I am not an IT professional, but I design for Geek Squad. I am not a celebrity chef, but I design for Andrew Zimmern. This is the challenge that every designer faces: How do we learn and create at exactly the same pace with exactly the same level of dedication?
(Also worth noting, it’s not even called “grass” anymore, Steven! The products Vireo produces are capsules, oral drops and oils!)
The packaging is very quiet. Did you have other iterations that just did not work well for you or the client?
As a studio, we tend to go pretty wide in exploration for both identity and packaging designs, then narrow our focus in later rounds. In this case we were able to focus in fairy quickly on the packaging look and feel since we understood that the client wanted the system to feel part pharma and part high-end apothecary/wellness. The design needed to communicate a balance of medical safety and the lifestyle improvement aspects of freedom and relief. We definitely looked at the much louder, more psychedelic and “pot-leafy” vibes of recreational marijuana brands, but ultimately we really started liking the promise of quality and the more minimal invitation of body care brands like Kiehl’s and Aesop. The energy and vibrance comes from the pops of color on the logo and the spectrum gradient. When it comes down to it, the broader cannabis industry is filled with a lot of fairly disposable design that is a product of decades of underground and illegal use. Our job is to shed that history and reintroduce medical cannabis as serious, safe, and a physician-led solution for chronic pain.
How much oversight was there in producing this brand look?
The clients provided detailed oversight on Vireo because they had a lot of their lives invested in this brand’s success, and we took that oversight with a lot of honor and respect.
We started this project, as we usually do, with a hefty amount of research and exploration on communication, personality, brand mission statement and overall identity, which gave us a firm understanding of what Vireo’s visual language should ultimately be. This usually helps the client feel like they are in good hands, and we tend to develop a lot of trust in those early rounds of discussion.
We knew the brand should feel clean and open and have a certain amount of sterility to communicate innovation, medical safety and trustworthiness. We knew that we also needed the brand to be somewhat celebratory, and that’s where color came in. The Vireo product line is color-coded by levels of THC and CBD, rather than by strain. We decided to use this color spectrum as a differentiator, which added the pop of vibrance and energy we needed. This spectrum moved beyond just a functional labeling system into an ownable and vibrant visual brand asset. We simply modified the palette and blended the colors together to create the multi-colored Vireo spectrum gradient. The logomark itself was designed to communicate the idea of freedom, and since vireos are a family of birds, it made sense to design a flying, bird-like logomark. Ultimately the style of the logomark and custom logotype combined a sort of futuristic, scientific visual language with a very viney, plant-like vibe. The Vireo team was all-in on this design concept from the initial design presentation. They appreciated our attention to what we were communicating, and they really loved the logo system and integration of the Vireo spectrum.
The medical cannabis industry in the United States is a state-by-state industry. That means that the federal government requires the industry to completely segment production and sales by individual states. This limitation is intensely expensive. All of the Vireo product needs to be grown, refined, manufactured, bottled, prescribed and consumed in the particular state of origin for the product. This means that the Vireo NY products can only be grown and handled in NY, and the Vireo MN products can only be handled in MN. This is the same requirement for every state. The analogy I like to use is to try to imagine everything you see in any given Target store only being manufactured in your specific state and sold in your specific state. The opioid-based pain relief industry, of course, does not have this restriction. The opium industry can centralize production and distribute their products internationally. This current situation provides an incredibly uneven playing field that we are all hoping will change one day.
Do you expect that there will be more medical marijuana branding of a different sort?
Oh Steven, we’re praying for it. A lot of the existing pain-relief industry needs to be improved and replaced. It is my hope that the work our team created for Vireo is a leader towards that broader goal.
For seven years, I had a branch office in Brooklyn. There wasn’t one time that when I took the subway I didn’t see pot leaf graffiti or pot stickers festooning the subway terminals. It was just part of the landscape. I am extremely proud to say that the Vireo posters we designed were the VERY first medical cannabis posters ever to be posted in the New York Subway System.
There is a rich landscape for this industry. I’m looking forward to being a part of its growth. Like I said before, we believe that brand identity design will play an important part in changing the way people think about cannabis.
Can you foresee the recreational branding happening soon, and would that interest you?
That’s a really good question. Very good friends of mine have designed some truly great recreational branding for the cannabis industry. I’m in love with what Duffy Design created for Good Chemistry in Colorado. But as a former senior designer for Joe Duffy, I am always a bit biased (I love that guy and would drink a tub full of his dirty bathwater [that will gross him out, surely]) but I’m honestly much less interested in the recreational side of this industry. I suppose that is partially because I’ve never been a recreational user. Medical cannabis provides real relief and life benefits for people with chronic pain, not to mention many other conditions. There is a lot of work that needs to be done on the physician-led side of this industry, and for now, that is going to take up all of my efforts and the best parts of my design brain.
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