Package Design in the Cannabis Industry

Grass. Dope. 420. Mary Jane. Pot.

Whatever you may call it, you’ll be seeing a lot of more of it in the near future—here in the United States marijuana legalization is well underway. Currently, 25 US states and Washington, D.C. have legalized it in some way, and a recent Gallup poll reported that over half of Americans express support for legal marijuana use. It appears that the United States is overcoming its decades of Reefer Madness and looking towards a much greener future.

It used to be that buying weed implied some sort of shady exchange on a dimly lit street corner, but in states where weed is regulated and legal, it’s simply business. And this business presents an exciting new territory.

It goes beyond just the sale of marijuana, cannabis products like lotions, oils, edibles, and other paraphernalia; instead, we’re seeing an entirely new economic sector. It’s everything that a business entails and all of the opportunities that come along with it for those involved, from retail space rental to employee hires, website development to social media content, advertising campaigns to financial planning—and of course, product packaging design. And as medical marijuana becomes more mainstream, designers will play a vital part in helping cannabis products transcend current stereotypes into something new entirely.

“I think people sometimes respond fearfully to cannabis because it is mysterious and culturally inaccessible to them, and sometimes because they have personally seen the damaging effects of substance abuse,” comments Nathan Sharp, who designed the branding and packaging for Kiva Confections alongside Jamie Lee

“The sustainable future of the cannabis industry is contingent upon good design. More than just making the product more broadly marketable, good design helps create a safer, more well-informed public. People need to see that the industry is changing and packaging will be the first and most salient ambassador of that change.”

Sharp and Kiva co-founder Scott Palmer mention that the advent of marijuana legalization has presented an entirely different generation of cannabis user. For decades, we’ve seen what they’ve dubbed the “super user,” or the standard stoner-type weed consumer—picture paraphernalia featuring blazed cartoon characters with bloodshot eyes, trippy rainbow background graphics, and laughably large blunts. But many of today’s buyers desire the convenience of low cannabis doses. Whether it’s for easing physical pain, aiding with anxiety or sleep disorders, or simply offering a way to unwind at the end of the day much like popping open a few cans of beer, consumers now seek out something wholly satisfying in moderation.

This is exactly what San Francisco agency Pavement aimed to do with the Highlighter by Bloom Farms. "When we were approached to create their brand and packaging, their founder Mike Ray specifically sought to change the marketplace," Owner/Creative Director of Pavement, Mike Hester, explains. 

"At the time, medical cannabis branding and packaging was dominated by brands that were generally overly flashy, lacked production value and often went against the legitimacy the medical marijuana industry is trying desperately to build. [Mike Ray] wanted to create a product that a soccer mom would feel as comfortable using to relieve stress as a glass of wine at the end of the day, something she would feel comfortable carrying in her purse. The brand had to avoid the obvious stoner cliches in order to do this."

Kiva, too, situates itself as a premium product far more concerned with quality over quantity. “We asked ourselves, 'What do we believe about ourselves, the patients, and cannabis?’ The brand and the packaging really evolved from that line of thinking,” Sharp states. “Kiva wanted to give people a relaxing experience with their product—we believe that experience begins with the first encounter. And oftentimes, that means the packaging. The physical feel and the emotional tone of it should prime the senses for what's to come. We wanted it to feel well-crafted and refined, yet humble and accessible; to communicate with a bedside manner that is comforting and assuring.”

Of course, packaging requires more than just a look and feel—it needs to also communicate valuable information to the consumer. For marijuana-infused products, this means clearly labeling it as “medical cannabis.” 

Easy enough, right?

Not exactly. Since regulations vary from state to state and even within states and counties, individual companies are essentially tasked with interpreting the rules and clearly communicating the nature of their products. Additionally, no standard dosage amount exists, and one person’s tolerance could be vastly different from another’s. When consumers don’t know the exact THC amount or how it might affect them, it becomes an unnecessary guessing game of too much or not enough.

Sharp and Lee aimed to clearly label the THC amounts on Kiva’s packaging and make the product itself easy to divide. While not all companies prioritize this information, Sharp proposes a solution that could potentially enhance every patient’s experience: “While I don't advocate strict visual guidelines, I think a simple, clear, and relatively unobtrusive labeling system would be immensely useful. It would not only establish that a product contains cannabis, but would also provide the consumer with important information like the type and amount of cannabinoids present.”

Ideas like this that could not only change the way the industry operates, but also positively impact the public’s view towards marijuana. "I personally think it's important for other brands to follow suit as it can only strengthen the marketplace as a whole going forward," Hester adds. "This is a legitimate product that can relieve a multitude of real medical conditions, the branding and packaging of cannabis products should respect that." With estimated sales projected at $6.7 billion for 2016, the future of cannabis is now. It’s a business that’s growing whether we’re ready for it or not, and designers have the ability to look ahead and shape it. We might not know what those green pastures will hold, but it seems that we won’t have to wait too long to find out.