Happy 4/20! To celebrate the dankiest day of the year, we'll be taking a mini tour through the elevated design of the contemporary cannabis industry. Have you ever wondered how people in those states do things? How do weed stores work? Or why is vaping such a thing? How do you accurately label recreational drugs? Are all bongs doomed to be ugly? Over the next few High Design posts, I'll do my best to lift some answers out of the haze and spark more interest in America's fastest growing industry. We'll talk to budtenders at cutting edge cannabis shops, break out product trends and failures, and talk about where weed needs design most in 2017.
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After years of slow breakthrough in the legalization of recreational marijuana, 2016 was a turning point for public vending, and it has skyrocketed the popularity and profitability of cannabis. As you'd expect, savvy designers have been along for the ride. Weed churned over $7.4 billion in sales in 2016—and America could only claim five recreationally legalized states until the November election, when it added four more... where vending is still only legal on paper. Oregon alone sold over 11,000 pounds of cannabis in the first three months of 2016 and netted the state over $5.5 billion in tax revenue by year end. Investments in cannabis are crackling, and the value of the national industry is estimated to top $24 billion by 2020. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I doubt Pantone's "Greenery" came out of nowhere, man. It's a lucrative niche to work in, and it owes a good deal to good design.
If the retail trends of the last two years are any indicator, working in cannabis is more than just lucrative —it's a big career booster for product designers. Local shops are more than a pickup site for a score, they're increasingly positioning themselves at the intersection of technology, design, and user education.
Serra, Portland OR
While the history of microbreweries offers several easy corollaries for product specialization, cannabis retail has the unique feature of bringing previously illegal and underrepresented products and desires to light and using design to redefine the market itself. If anything, the pivot in cannabis design harkens how sex toy designers and stores worked to redefine customer comfort with better product design and branding, beautiful displays, bright lighting, and knowledgeable female staff.
Still life with
Legal status has sparked a concerted push for rebranding everything from familiar pipes to the buying experience to the high itself. In such a rapidly opening field, distinctive new products are extremely in demand. Once rebellious, silly and secretive, the cannabis industry is hungry for classier tools, inoffensive packaging, and professional grade problem solving.
This also means the chances of a design being picked up are unusually high. Though not a tiny industry, its newness, innovation and powerful profitability currently make it easier to get new product ideas all the way to production.
Additionally, with the logistics of how folks are getting high shifting to brick and mortar stores and an explosion of delivery methods, new and old users are both likely to encounter new products. This means lower brand loyalty and fewer deeply ingrained patterns of use. It's a thrilling time for designers hoping to make a splash.
A beautiful and geometrically dosed cannabis bar by Defonce Chocolatier
Thanks to tricky federal laws against cross-state trade on some but not all products, cannabis is a highly localized supply chain. This means that for now, markets are fairly self-contained, which can be a great boon for developing a brand or following, or a design problem to push against (with oversight from your legal team).
The mounting pile of positive medical applications and less psychoactive CBD varieties maintains a wide range of target users and angles for designers to consider. The mix of legal constraints, cultural cache, personal haptics, and enormous range of use make problem solving around cannabis particularly interesting.
The design questions range from fun to serious, with as much or little tie-dye as you like. Are traditional pipes off-putting for first time users? Is anyone making glass pipes and bongs tasteful enough for your mom to use? Which stash boxes are cool enough to leave on a desk? How do you make childproof containers for people with limited mobility? Can homegrowing be made easier?
With an increasingly destigmatized product, appealing to traditional stoner culture is just one tiny fragment of the cannabis design puzzle.
Coming up in the series, we'll tour beautiful weed shops and explore how they work, talk with budtenders and vape designers, and take a look at some of the most important cannabis-adjacent design innovations. While you may still be thrilled to score a word of mouth baggie and enjoy it in a glass pipe your brother forgot when he left for college… smart designers have been hard at work to build better and more attractive ways to partake. And we're going to talk about it.
Stay tuned and stay safe!