Smoke Signals: Rebranding Marijuana for the 21st Century

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Print has been acquired by an independent group of collaborators—Deb Aldrich, Laura Des Enfants, Jessica Deseo, Andrew Gibbs, Steven Heller and Debbie Millman—and soon enough, we’ll be back in full force with an all-new look, all-new content and a fresh outlook for the future! In the meantime, we’re looking back at some of our favorite pieces, such as this one by Sam Holleran. Enjoy.

If you were anywhere near a college campus, public park or jam band concert last 4/20—the annual stoner holiday celebrated on April 20—the pungent skunk-like smell was probably so pervasive that you could be forgiven for thinking that marijuana was completely legal in the United States. Despite former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ counteroffensive reminiscent of 1980s saber rattling, the rules around cannabis are quickly changing and the rest of the U.S. is moving on. Weed is now legal in 11 states, and is approved for medical use in 33 others. While many legislative kinks have yet to be worked out, the industry is already a booming business. In just a few years recreational marijuana use has moved from a verboten pastime to a market force.

State-sanctioned use of the drug has long been under significant fire from cultural conservatives, but the vast majority of voters in legalized states don’t seem to mind the new odors—or the significant tax streams they generate (to date, Colorado has collected $1.26 billion). The American public at large has even developed a certain fascination with the new “green economy,” as evidenced by a slew of reality TV shows with punny titles like “High Profits,” “Weed Country” and “Bong Appetite.” Horticultural innovation and enterprise have produced new varieties of weed and new ways to get high, including concentrated hash oil “pollens,” and even cannabis-infused sexual lubricants.

As the legal status of the drug has changed, so has its status in culture, and with that, its demographic reach. So it comes as only natural that the look of the industry would have to change, too.

Medical Marijuana Packaging

The cannabis market sector has been in dire need of a fresh identity to reflect its now-legal status, grown-up patrons and novel consumption methods. The cultural tropes that graphic designers have drawn on to rebrand weed are diverse. The visual reworking of America’s favorite flowering botanical began with identities for entrepreneurial growers, chocolatiers and merchants. They wanted to make it clear that they were operating businesses of good repute. The key was to trash counterculture tropes of years past; the dispensaries of Denver don’t have the Bob Marley tapestries, black-light posters and grungy furniture you’d find in an Amsterdam coffee shop. Instead, they opt for the sterility of a high-end juice bar. The patchouli and hemp aesthetic of High Times magazine has been eschewed for clean functionality. Colorado’s dispensaries are literally that: points for dispensing a product. You’re not allowed to use, or even open, items in-store.

When marijuana first hit the market in Colorado, graphics ran the gamut—from illustrations clearly developed in MS Paint, to slick corporate presentations—but all erred on the side of respectability, with names like Medically Correct LLC, EdiPure and Synergy Wellness. Many emphasized the health-giving properties of cannabis, and not just because a “medical” stamp is good, gentle introductory marketing. Therapeutic use is the language the legalization movement has learned to speak over the past 25 years, as recreational use took a back seat. The medical associations linger even as the demographic allowed to consume has moved from only those stricken by the gravest illnesses to any adult over 21.

The new stores and products seem to be looking for legitimacy in the visual field because they were having so much trouble finding it elsewhere. Banks often still refuse to deal with dispensaries, meaning that simple transactions, like employee payroll, need to be conducted with wads of $100 bills. With such lingering negative perceptions of businesses involved in the marijuana trade, it’s no wonder that communication design is seen as an important venue by which to set the record straight.

Medical Marijuana Packaging

As the business has rapidly developed, some notable designs have emerged. Plus Gum, a THC gum, is one of these. It shakes off the outsider imagery of the pot world—dollar signs, camo and smiley faces—in favor of clean, novel packaging. The lollipop swirl and slab-serifed type manage to channel the old-timey soda-fountain-cum-pharmacy of Main Street America, simultaneously placing the product in a world that is fun, but also safe. Phillip Fivel Nessen, the designer behind Plus Gum, agrees that today’s new wave of marijuana branding logically imitated the health space. However, now, “a good portion of people that are fighting for legality aren’t saying it’s a medicine. It’s just something to enjoy.”

Nessen’s answer to that evolution: sweets, a perfect metaphor. Positioning products in this sphere removed them from the angel/devil dichotomy that has plagued cannabis culture for years, with some claiming it as a cure-all for modernity’s stressors (think Peter Tosh), and others blaming it for nearly all of society’s ills (think Nancy Reagan). Sweets are neither; they are simply pleasurable, slightly naughty, but acceptable and ubiquitous.

However, edibles still had to escape associations with munchies and fatty junk foods. So when developing the gum’s packaging, Nessen needed to embody it as a healthy indulgence. With this sentiment, you see a move toward visuals that channel artisanal goods of days past, like salt water taffy. More THC-filled foods seem to be taking on a winkingly wholesome aesthetic, and in years to come they may even be seen as all-American as apple pie. (Or space cake.)

Visualize the general aesthetic of the physical implements for smoking marijuana, and you get a kitsch pastiche of dragon’s heads, kaleidoscopic colors and steampunk gadget–heavy chic. Again: the branding of yesteryear. New “smoking-lifestyle” retailers represent a move toward a Cannabis 2.0: a sophisticated way of ingesting marijuana that shows a new relationship with the forbidden flora.

Tetra is a curated online shop featuring haute-design pieces “dedicated to elevating the aesthetics of the smoking experience.” Industrial designers produce their own handmade items with styles that range from Vitra-sleek to Noguchi earthy. Tetra co-founder Eviana Hartman notes that the smoking ritual “is something that is very special and worth celebrating,” but that in the past it’s been dragged into “bro culture.” What makes Tetra’s gear
very different from the implements available in headshops of yore is the quality and purity of their designs. “We wanted to create pipes you wouldn’t be ashamed to have out on your coffee table,” says Hartman.

Many of the smoking devices on Tetra’s 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.

For now, Tetra rests on the common, polite fiction that the pieces in its collection are for a vague and generalized “smoking,” theoretically of tobacco. This is nothing new for those in a paraphernalia industry that has walked the fine line of legality for nearly 50 years. Because the word bong was long associated with drug use, the smoking emporiums in the college town where I grew up had to make sure all of their customers called the devices water pipes. Failure to do so resulted in immediate ejection. Even the makers of rolling papers once had to assert that their products were for hand-rolling tobacco only. Slowly but surely, the smokescreens of the past are blowing away.

So what’s next?

The developing public health conversation around the packaging and sale of cannabis products in recreational-use states is the place where designers have the most opportunity to emerge as leaders.

In 2015, Colorado proposed new rules for the labeling and potency of weed-infused edibles. The tighter regulations came after several cases in which children unwittingly ingested edibles, thinking they were regular sweets. Design guidelines for packaging are in the works, and developing them is an opportunity for creatives of all stripes to collaborate with public health, law enforcement and other civic officials in new and interesting ways.

Streamlined growing and harvesting methods have made it possible for people to get much higher levels of THC into their bloodstreams, but there are few dependable methods for dosing and measuring new marijuana products. There is great potential to utilize basic information design to help new users understand the high different strains deliver. This might take the form of a numerical ranking system, or a multi-colored heat spectrum. Additionally, designers can be deployed to create safe storage mechanisms for cannabis products. In Denver, stores are already required to sell products in a childproof vinyl bag (the locking mechanism, which takes two hands to open, is more powerful than a pill bottle and will probably serve as a deterrent to overly stoned adults, as well). Other storage solutions have been developed by savvy entrepreneurs, many of them women.

Jeanine Moss, a 62-year-old who started smoking to treat post hip replacement pain, developed a line of aroma-control handbags and clutches. Designers and architects are also beginning to create interiors, point-of-sale units and storefronts that allow dispensaries to blend into their neighborhoods.

Medical Marijuana Packaging

The issue of how the government would label legal marijuana was not at the forefront of policy makers’ minds as Colorado rapidly rolled out dispensaries in January 2014. However, politicians and designers watched as Washington state—which took a more cautious approach in bringing pot to the market—blundered the logo of their oversight authority (above). The original seal seemed dashed-off: It featured a jagged cannabis leaf in the outline of Washington state. It looked more like a dorm room flag than a new government agency. The regulators, who are lodged within the state’s liquor control board, quickly rescinded the seal and have yet to develop a new one. Learning from Washington’s mistake, Colorado developed a we-mean-business crest to be applied to all marijuana products. It features a shield with an angry eagle and the words “Department of Revenue: Marijuana,�? encircled by “Criminal Enforcement Division.�? It is a concession to the old-school graphics of authority and trust, playing on the same conservatism that keeps U.S. currency so bland, even as the state government moved to rebrand with a perky mark featuring a cartoony mountain top.

Medical Marijuana Packaging

In 2015, the Colorado House convened an Edibles Work Group that included elected officials and representatives from child welfare, food safety, law enforcement and marijuana organizations. The collective was tasked with developing a “universal symbol�? that would distinguish, say, “Chewy Ganja Granola Bars�? from garden-variety granola. Conspicuously absent in the group were designers—and it shows. The symbol they ended up with to signify cannabis content reads as “! THC�? lodged in a fire diamond. While this symbol is an improvement on the “Criminal Enforcement�? shield (that it will supplement, not replace, it should be noted), it leaves much to be desired.

Medical Marijuana Packaging

On the whole, designers need to actively work to insert themselves into the marijuana conversation, and in so doing prove the very real worth of design in communicating public policy. One hopes that governments will collaborate with designers to develop new, intelligible packaging, perhaps something along the lines of the Nutritional Facts label that other recreational-use states could also adopt. It will take time and money, and the convening of people from disparate fields: design, public health, the community, science. Carrying out testing with users will be iterative and probably not cheap, but the substantial revenue that states are earning from marijuana can work to offset it.

The U.S. at large is having its marijuana moment, and this is a formative, defining time. As the culture of Cheech and Chong’s take on marijuana draws its final hit, designers and other media makers have been—and will continue to be—key in the shifting cultural connotations of cannabis. The challenge now is to prevent the industry from sliding back into the past visually, especially as some policymakers try to turn the clock back legally.

In such movements, though, it’s usually only a matter of time before progress wins out. So while the future may seem
uncertain, it is, undoubtedly, fragrant.

Sam Holleran is a writer, interdisciplinary artist and educator investigating topics in graphic culture and urbanism. He has worked with the Center for Architecture, the Design Trust for Public Space and the Center for Urban Pedagogy in New York City. He is currently at work on a book about visual literacy.