The Green Scene
Dispensaries: The New Trend-Setters of the Design World
Funky, sleek, and elevated interiors abound in the cannabis storefronts of today.
In The Green Scene, there's no such thing as a silly question about cannabis. What's the difference between THC and CBD? How the heck do I make edibles at home? What home design advice can dispensaries teach me? Kick back—we have the answers.
The first cannabis dispensary in the United States opened in 1992 in San Francisco, California. Since then, the model of what a retail space for cannabis could be has changed about as much as the industry itself. With this explosive growth has come shifts in cultural and design sensibilities, both as cannabis settles in as a more-than-legitimate business, and as the need for innovative cannabis retail design increases.
Dispensaries, unlike liquor stores, have increasingly become immersive experiences. Instead of stretching toward a teetering shelf to reach a bottle of gin (as the shop owner watches on), in a dispensary, you’ll be expertly guided—either in person or by design—toward the exact product you perhaps didn’t even know you needed. And much like a smooth user-experience in a traditional retail environment, cannabis consumers are loyal to brands that uncomplicate the process with smart design. The product, of course, has a great bearing on returning customers, but the presentation is nearly as important—all the way from package design to storefront.
“I watched as new consumers timidly handed over their IDs at the door before the tension fell from their shoulders and they stepped into the impeccably designed, open space. This was not a drug deal,” says Ross Gardiner, in MG Magazine, of a whole new kind of dispensary experience in 2019. Today’s dispensaries, by and large, are places you immediately feel excited to be in, even excited to photograph. No longer is buying weed an experience you have to hide or feel shame about, it’s a multisensory activity you go out of your way to do.
Each time I visit California, Oregon, or Massachusetts, I stop in at dispensaries. This isn’t just to restock my own supply or bring home a souvenir, but also because they’re incredibly thoughtful spaces that inspire me. Just like a particularly striking restaurant or storefront, the design of a dispensary has the capacity to stick around in my mental mood board for some time.
Not only are the spaces thoughtful, but the vibe (forgive me!) is simply immaculate. Bud-tenders (the dispensary staff members) are somehow always friendly (like, Trader Joe’s friendly), eager to share their knowledge with novices and experts alike. You always feel like you’re being heard, and at once feel like everyone around you is super cool, but not intimidatingly so…they want you to be cool, too.
As someone invested in all things interior design, I find the dispensary design world fascinating, because for all intents and purposes, it’s a totally fresh page in a blueprint book. I asked Megan Stone, founder of High Road Studio, an award-winning cannabis dispensary interior design, branding, and consulting studio in the US, how she came to be in this burgeoning and booming industry, and she puts it quite simply: “When I finished my design degree, there were no opportunities in cannabis design at all; it was as though no one had ever connected these two worlds before. I knew I had to change that.”
Stone, whose firm has designed over 15 truly innovative and stunning dispensaries across the US, has been a medical cannabis patient throughout her adult life, and during design school, a bud-tender. But somehow, she hadn’t found “very many dispensaries that spoke to who I was as a consumer, nor that I thought brought much integrity or wellness to the experience.” Her work over the past nine years has been dedicated to striking the balance between good design and a focus on wellness, which has certainly helped shape the industry into what it is today.
Similar to Stone, Alexander Farnsworth, founder and CEO of Farnsworth Fine Cannabis, one of the first LGBTQ-owned dispensaries in Massachusetts, felt that overall, “the industry fell short in delivering desirable brick-and-mortar experiences,” and so “set out to create a concept that is luxurious and refined, but also accessible.”
Though talk of a place to buy cannabis may conjure images (and scents) of head shops past, trends in the dispensary world actually replicate ones we’ve seen in design in general. In the 2010s, Farnsworth points out, “MedMen took the Apple Store approach and brought new attention to the cannabis industry,” and dispensaries were dominated by bright, white walls, exposed industrial elements, and heavily leaned into the plant aspect of it all, with living walls and tons of lush greenery. “Since then,” Farnsworth adds, “we’ve seen additional focus on the boutique experience with more design-forward concepts,” and as the industry has matured, designers have moved to luxury fabrics, moody color palettes, and high-quality finishings.
And, just like interior design in homes, restaurants, and traditional retail spaces, there’s design inspiration to be found everywhere. Stone often gathers inspiration for her work from hotels, coffee shops, restaurants and other hospitality spaces, as well as from other retailers of connoisseur-type products (ie. craft beer, wine, tea, food). “Dispensaries blend retail and hospitality a lot,” she points out, and ”given the high-touch, high-service transaction that takes place in the stores, I lean on cues from other similar spaces.”
The inspiration for Farnsworth Fine Cannabis, on the other hand, comes from some of the oldest apothecaries in the world, which Farnsworth notes often featured arched entries. “Our showroom is like the Square Colosseum,” he says, “the arches work to focus the frame on the product mix.” The goal for the store was to infuse lots of natural light, and have best-in-class displays for the product, so the team actually looked towards museums and exhibition displays for lighting and display references.
A Focus on Flow
While the idea that a store should flow well seems obvious, it’s not always the case. Especially in the world of dispensaries (where there is often a check-in desk before a showroom), getting the flow right is important for making the consumer feel at ease, and there are multiple considerations when it comes to what will be behind a counter or available for shopping. Technology (like ordering on iPads), number of staff on the floor, and where displays are located all factor into the flow of the space, so designers of dispensaries spend a lot of time working through every possible iteration.
The Educated Consumer
“We are seeing customers want quick, efficient, easy experiences in dispensaries just like they want in all other types of retail and hospitality settings,” says Stone. “As cannabis customers have matured and become comfortable with the dispensary experience, we've seen their needs for hands-on services and education go down and their trust in products and retailers go up.” This shift in consumer knowledge has, in turn, led to demand for store designs that enable efficient fulfillment of online orders, express order pick-up, and delivery services.
Trail…Blazing, If You Will
Above all else, a dispensary does well when it emulates the product it sells. “Dispensaries must evolve from deli style counter service,” Farnsworth warns, “or worse: nondescript rooms resembling bland medical offices,” and instead, be “environments of discovery and education to parallel the new product offerings.” In other words, more innovation in the world of cannabis? More boundary-pushing design for dispensaries.
Maybe it’s because the innovators in the cannabis world have been ahead of the curve for so long now—they’re likely the hip, in-the-know people who you’re amazed by in your own life—but designers in the dispensary space are shaking the stigma and setting all their own trends. While procuring cannabis was once at worst, criminal, and at best, judged, the tide is changing. Says Stone, “I don't experience any stigma around what I do at all, which I think is also a huge sign that our work has accomplished what we set out to do.”
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