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Art & Design in Cannabis Packaging

As everyone knows, the recreational and medical cannabis industries have exploded in the past decade, and with this growth have come new opportunities as well as concerns, especially as it relates to packaging. And although product design is a relatively new topic in the industry, business leaders and entrepreneurs are quickly realizing how important it is—not only for safety and utility considerations, but for attracting consumers. And while it is unlikely the humble plastic baggie will ever truly become extinct, it now competes with fancy self-locking cases, sophisticated slide boxes, and mysterious black glass vials.

Throughout history many innovative designs were born out of necessity, and this holds true in the cannabis industry—but another huge consideration these days is a financial one, as legal sales of cannabis in the United States are projected to reach $30 billion by 2025. It started when Colorado began sales of recreational cannabis in 2013 and items had to leave the dispensary in childproof exit packaging. A simple, hard-to-open pouch was the only obstacle for minors, and was often disposed of by the purchaser not long after leaving the shop. This oversight was quickly remedied with new regulations requiring all containers holding the product itself to be child-resistant.

But the “child-resistant” badge can be tricky to earn, and difficult not to over-do. The sweet spot lies somewhere between a container that is significantly difficult for a child roughly 3 to 4 years old to open, but easy enough for most adults. For example, one manufacturer’s solution – where you must press in the sides of the package and then depress a latch in the front – takes just a few minutes for anyone to figure out.

In addition, manufacturers must remember that in some jurisdictions, other government regulations — language such as testing results, THC content, warnings, and compliance information — is required to be printed on their cannabis labels. For example, in jurisdictions such as California, the packages must be tamper-resistant and cannot be “attractive to children.” This means no cartoon characters, flashy colors, or loud advertisements; essentially, what some have dubbed “boring.” Clearly, there is much to consider when finding the “sweet spot” in cannabis packaging.

There are other challenges designers are tackling, since regulations vary and may become more stringent as legalization expands. Fortunately, government requirements are fairly standard for regulated products, and good design teams can manage those easily. The difficulty is in making the packaging both safe and beautiful. Simon Kwan, product designer at Vertex Packaging, a leading firm creating packaging for industries from pharmaceuticals to alcohol, as well as cannabis, explains, “The toughest challenge is to design new, effective-but-simple, child-resistant mechanisms for packaging that can be tailored to the unique needs of this product.” Indeed, it’s the new need for shelf appeal that has inspired a burst of creative energy: “We aim to design attractive and practical alternatives to the push-and-twist bottles so commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry,” says Kwan. And as far as aesthetics are concerned, the results are anything but boring.

Studies show the average American cannabis user lives in an urban environment and is becoming increasingly more sophisticated. Today’s consumers look for quality over quantity and seek lived experiences over the accumulation of possessions. Users visit dispensaries because they are staffed with experts who help budding connoisseurs find a product tailored to fit their needs. Shoppers also expect their product to be safe and secure, as the CEO of Kush Supply Co, a large supplier, explains in an interview with Cheddar: “Maybe I shouldn’t trust the product I get off the street. Maybe I should go to the legal channel, where its tested and screened, and pick up product that I know is safe.”

In addition, consumers know their favorite strains and formulas. The democratization of information via the internet has made every potential customer something of a connoisseur. They understand concepts such as potency, terpenes, and the importance of limiting exposure to sunlight and extreme temperatures. They expect products to stay fresh and flavorful. As such, smart consumers also know packaging is paramount to preserving the highest quality product; yet, still they are of course affected by emotion when making purchase decisions.

Indeed, shopping for a cannabis product has become experiential. For many modern, affluent consumers, it isn’t merely a transaction, like buying milk at the grocery store. Rather, they appreciate the design of their purchases; for example, the pleasingly clean geometry of Vertex Packaging’s pre-roll cases, or the bright pastel colors present in Pollen Gear’s jars.

So if shopping for the product is an experience and consuming the product is an experience, what about the physical product itself? Consider the unboxing of the latest iPhone. It’s a slow, almost solemn and respectful process: feel its weight; discover how one component perfectly fits into the next; allow gravity to gently tug at the satiny box to slide open. The ritual is an homage to design. And like consumers of other luxury products, cannabis users are becoming brand loyal, feeling (though they may not completely realize it) that the packaging says as much about themas it does about the product itself. Patrons are even extending the brand past the life of the product, repurposing delicate tins and complex boxes to hold trinkets and personal items. Thus, a sleek, attractive, and artistic package has potential as a mobile marketing tool with peer endorsement.

Now, while an ill-conceived brand design or clumsy package is not a death sentence for a developing cannabis manufacturer, it should be remembered that 50% of purchasing decisions are made on the shelf. Forward-thinking innovators who recognize buyer’s appreciation of astute design will be at the forefront of the new and rapidly growing cannabis industry.

In the future, companies such as Vertex Packaging are imagining that cannabis packaging will likely develop along two converging paths: art and ecosystem. “We’ll see both more beautiful, and more eco-friendly packaging,” explains Marketing Manager Michelle Ye. “Consumers expect to see secure, hardy containers that are both pleasing to the eye and made out of sustainable materials that don’t leach chemicals into the product and can be recycled or composted.” The abundance of newly manufactured vials, boxes, and tins will not become the next water bottle, a ubiquitous symbol of refuse and waste. And as sanitation has taken center stage in 2020, manufacturers will be forced to invent unique packaging solutions that allow for container reusability that is both green and clean, while still meeting government regulations.

Cannabis packaging has come a long way in a short amount of time, but we haven’t seen the end of innovation. Consumers will continue to expect luxury, aesthetic appeal, utility, and environmental safety out of these products, and as the industry adapts, the packaging will follow.


Phillip MandelPhillip Mandel

Phillip Mandel

Phillip Scott Mandel is the founder of Mandel Marketing and is a writer, marketer, and musician based in Austin, Texas. He has an MFA in Writing from Texas State University and an MA in Literature from NYU, and has worked with many aspects of the advertising, branding, and marketing industries for nearly twenty years. Mandel can be reached at [email protected].
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