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High Times: Cannabis and Design

Designers will play a crucial role in the development of the cannabis industry, but need to stay several steps ahead of ever-changing regulations.

A new green revolution is upon us. The rapidly expanding recreational marijuana industry in the United States and beyond is already creating a significant financial impact in the places where it is now legal to buy, sell and consume the psychoactive substance. Colorado’s economy was notably transformed after the US state legalized recreational marijuana in 2012 – sales since the law passed topped $6 billion earlier this year – and 10 more states have followed suit to-date in hopes of similar success. “It is a completely new economy, or recently transformed economy, with legalization,” said Brooklyn-based architect and designer Michael Yarinsky, who is currently working with a medical marijuana dispensary chain. 

Shaping the growth of an industry with such vast global potential, while ensuring that cannabis does not go the same way as tobacco did in the early 20th century – when just a handful of large companies dominated the market – is a key opportunity for designers. From retail spaces and products, to branding for companies and graphics for marketing materials, there are myriad ways in which creative minds are needed. “There is a massive necessity for designers to come in and do good work, so that this transition happens equitably and beautifully,” Yarinsky said. “It's a field in which design is central to everything.”

The regulations for growing and selling medical and recreational marijuana are changing rapidly

But in each state, the legislation differs, and what is allowed in one might still not be permitted in another. What’s more, the various policies can be updated as regularly as once a month – Yarinsky revealed that during the height of his project’s development, he was reading a new 100-page policy document this frequently.

“You have to know the policy better than your clients,” he said, noting that designers need to stay way ahead of the game in order to keep in compliance with the changing rules, and try to foresee how future potential shifts could affect their projects.

Michael Yarinsky had to follow strict requirements when designing the first Harmony dispensary

Yarinsky’s experience working with the cannabis industry has primarily been through Harmony, which currently only offers medical marijuana in New Jersey because recreational weed is not yet legal. He designed the interior for Harmony’s first outpost in Secaucus, and acted as a consultant for the company’s branding and packaging. The designer is now developing new spaces for the company, set to open across the state soon.

For the dispensary interiors, Yarinsky has tried to move away from the “Apple Store” aesthetic adopted by many across the country. His intention was to create a comfortable atmosphere to suit clientele of all ages and backgrounds – representative of the diverse population that uses medical marijuana. “It's not meant to feel like a hospital or a pharmacy,” said Yarinksky. “It's meant to feel like a very welcoming space.”

The Harmony dispensary in New Jersey was designed to feel welcoming, rather than like a hospital

However, this has not been easy, due to the restrictions demanded by the policy papers, which include signage, color, visibility and advertising. Yarinksky advised that designing spaces and branding that can be easily adapted as and when regulations change is the easiest way around having to constantly update.

“A lot of the rules really don't make any sense,” Yarinsky said. “And I think a lot of the rules really are set up to make it really hard for businesses to thrive.”

“The designer of the space has to be on top of every little change in the law, because until it's for recreational, it's just going to be in some weird middle ground,” he continued. “And every state is different.”

Therefore, he believes it is critical for designers and policymakers, such as Empire State NORML in New York, to work together to be able to change public perception of this industry, so that it can grow and thrive nationwide. “The way we fight against a non-political, equitable future for cannabis is to give the people who are on the right side of policy the language of design… to market it properly, to make it beautiful.”

Gin Lane's branding for Recess drinks had to subtly allude to the effects of CBD

The recent introduction of cannabidiol (CBD) products, derived from hemp, provides an interesting, and related, precedent for how designers can impact the marijuana industry. Hemp is a variant of the cannabis plant that has much lower tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels than marijuana, and was federally legalized in the US in 2018, though remains heavily regulated. Countless products – including infused soft drinks, oils, candy and supplements – have since hit the shelves, but the alleged relaxational and pain-relieving benefits of the substance cannot be promoted through the packaging or branding.

Products like Recess flavored sparkling water, which was branded by New York agency Gin Lane, therefore use soft pastel colors and the slogan “cool calm collected” to subtly allude to the CBD effects. Gin Lane is also behind the visual identity of Sunday Goods, a cannabis company from Arizona that expanded into California when the state introduced recreational marijuana legislation last year. The team were able to use much more direct marketing, language and pictorial motifs thanks to the freedom these states now offer cannabis brands.

But until the US federal government agrees to legalize recreational marijuana, the difficulty of navigating various state policies will remain for all involved. The important thing, according to Yarinsky, is “understanding that it's a very, very quickly evolving future”.

Michael Yarinsky has organized a panel discussion titled Design in the Next Economy: Cannabis, taking place at A/D/O on July 25, 2019. The other participants will include Camille Baldwin and Dan Kenger branding agency Gin Lane and Brooke Mauro from advocacy group Empire State NORML.

Text by Dan Howarth.

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