When we first pitched “Dope Design” as a concept, folks were skeptical—understandably so.
The challenges of assembling a high-level design event that centered cannabis visual culture were two-fold: stigma and representation.
First, cannabis design strikes many as an oxymoron. Because of its criminalized history in America, cannabis visuals were often coded for an underground audience. Clumsy leaf logos, Rastafarian flags, and lurid visuals dominated the visual landscape.
Second, cannabis events in Southern California tend to be sponsored by brands, and event panels are too often comprised of corporate cannabis CEOs with scant connection to cannabis culture or knowledge of its pre-legalization history. Too many educational panels turned out to be thinly veiled pitches for products and clout. Equity, reparative justice, and the ongoing fallout of the War on Drugs were rarely part of the conversation. It was difficult for attendees at these events to gain any real understanding of the cannabis space for people without ample access to venture capital.
Our solutions: By dubbing the event “Dope Design” and partnering with AIGA Los Angeles, we hoped to both grab people’s attention with the title and the surprise effect of a prestigious design organization centering cannabis visual culture. While promoting the event, we emphasized how the advent of legalization and the increasing cultural push to de-stigmatize the plant has opened up brand-new space for designers to shape how we see and communicate about cannabis.
My co-curator and I intentionally assembled a panel that included journalists, graphic designers, creative directors, industry visionaries, and visual branding experts. We also reached out to journalists in the cannabis space to ensure strong coverage of a different type of cannabis event.
We worked with the moderator to make sure the content wouldn’t leave out people who were new to cannabis, and kicked off the event with a quick cannabis history overview to get the room on the same page. We also made sure the panel was able to address specific challenges that designers and creatives in cannabis need to solve, as well as recommendations on finding work in the cannabis space.
Our results spoke for themselves. Dope Design sold out weeks in advance, was AIGA LA’s highest earning event in 2019, and was widely acknowledged to be one of the most successful events in the organization’s recent history. Years later we continue to receive feedback from attendees who went on to find work in the cannabis industry. Because our panelists understood that issues of racism, historical propaganda, and social justice are inherent to any conversation about the future of cannabis, our attendees received genuine insight into the challenges, pitfalls, excitement, and opportunities in this brave new world.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly? The event was a blast. Our wonderful hosts, Vice Media, practically had to kick all 200 of us out at the end of the night, and the party went on at a nearby Venice bar until well into the next morning.