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GoldLeaf Founder Charles McElroy On The Challenges And Rewards Of Cannabis Design

To understand the challenge facing cannabis today, consider the tech industry. Take the Facebook hearings last April, when Mark Zuckerberg assumed the hot seat and fielded questions from United States Senators about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. For his part, Zuckerberg appeared sincere in his effort to translate Facebook’s inner-workings into layman’s terms for Lindsay Graham, Orrin Hatch and the other high-ranking members of our legislative body in attendance. However, as the audience listened to senator after senator, asking question after question, each gentleman proving himself so shockingly ignorant of social media and the Internet, at one point, there was an audible gasp heard throughout the room.

The point is: those U.S. Senators actually use technology - each and every one of them use any number of devices and all types of platforms every single day. Whereas the same cannot be said of cannabis. In fact, the Roman Senate might very well have had more exposure and knowledge of the subject circa 300 AD. All of which is to say, in 2018, the challenge of educating the American public about cannabis is truly epic.

The second gasp-inducing front is aesthetic, inasmuch as making a clean break from cannabis’s checkered past demands a new visual language; one that will surprise, engage, and, ultimately, inspire the mainstream. The long game of winning hearts and minds must begin with opening eyes - literally - making people want to look at weed from entirely different perspectives, free of old prejudices. It’s an information/communication hat trick, alright, and print by print, the Ohio-based company Goldleaf is addressing both problems in a head-on manner that’s more than just smart, it’s thoughtful.

Through its collaborations with world-renowned researchers, award-winning growers, and international designers, Goldleaf avoids the entrapments of standardized pot-leaf iconography in favor of a dynamic 360-degree, whole-plant perspective. Seen from the historical, botanical, or mathematical angle, whether rendered as a ground-breaking opioid study, a colorful pop-art-like terpenes chart, or an ikebana-inspired series of floral prints, Goldleaf’s graphics are as visually appealing to the cannabis expert as any bud novice. On that note, Civilized spoke with Goldleaf founder Charles McElroy about approaching cannabis creatively, as an innovative journey rather than a branded destination.

Goldleaf has such a refined aesthetic, so let’s start with some of your art and design inspirations.
As I’m sure many designers would say, my influences and inspiration have evolved, and continue to evolve. There are a few mainstays of course, but layouts, color palettes and style seem to always be growing. If I’m looking for common threads with my influences, I really love nature as a subject, and thoughtful simplicity as a style.

Early on, I was fascinated by M.C. Escher’s more graphic shapes (animals with negative space), and anything by Charley Harper (nature shown in simple shapes and colors). Complex ideas boiled down to the bare bones. On the other side, I still hold Andy Goldsworthy on a pedestal. His medium is certainly the opposite of graphic design, but his work continues to be inspirational - intensely patient, nature-focused, and somewhat futile, since most of his works don’t last. I’ve always found that charming.

Beyond that, I worked with a couple clothing brands for years and learned to really appreciate some of the high-fashion aesthetic - some being the keyword. I liked the Scandinavian-inspired looks - clean, stark, sometimes bleak; cold, but with splashes of color, and always confident. I think I still carry some of those influences with my work at Goldleaf: the Danish modern and Bauhaus.

In terms of Goldleaf’s early work, what was the first idea that came to mind for a print?
I love data visualization, always have. I’m fascinated by the idea of making a dense and complicated subject display visually - and shown in a way that is accessible to the layperson. Taking it a step further, I love when people are drawn in aesthetically first, then held close due to the content.

My first designs were attempts to translate some interesting cannabis data into a visually pleasing format. The Cannabis Wheel print was one of our very first and we still offer it today. I love the circular graph and the way each one can be unique. I still enjoy thinking of different cannabis cultivars with that lens.

As far as other early sketches and ideas, I was lucky to collaborate with a couple great designers when crafting the initial concepts for Goldleaf—both of which I met through my work in the garment industry (and they’re now designers at Apple and Pinterest). They were incredibly helpful at establishing some of the style guides and rules that our first designs utilized. We’ve built off those first concepts, but the original 'modern & minimalist' styles still permeate throughout all our works.

Given cannabis’s complexity, as far as creative trial and error, has there been a Goldleaf design “fail” you could share? Or a design concept you simply have not been able to corral just yet?
I’ve been pretty lucky thus far and, design-wise, we haven’t had many total failures. Though we have had some in other areas of business (product development, namely!). But as far as our design track-record, I think our success is partly due to our process—our designs, whether done by myself, or a collaboration with another designer, must pass through various phases and milestones before it reaches its conclusion. If something isn’t feeling right early on, we’re changing it or aborting all together. For that reason, we don’t have many print design failures.

goldleaf's green ikebana print

Goldleaf's Green Ikebana Print, available at their website.

Simultaneously working with scientists and designers must present some unique challenges?
Early-on, I learned a few key rules when working with other designers. First, find an artist who can already do what you want. Assuming an artist can match something they haven’t demonstrated normally won’t work out. Second: Give them tons of guidance and instruction. A lot of work, but the more direction, the better it is for both parties.

All to say, there was a learning curve within Goldleaf, so we certainly had some ideas that never got off the ground - either due to aesthetics or because the concept was slightly off-brand. That isn’t to say that every print we’ve created is a home run, but we’re happy with the results of anything we publish, even if its audience is incredibly small. Creating items for small niches is our sweet spot.

Goldleaf is passionately science-forward, so how did science get built into your DNA?
From the start, that was one of our founding principles with the brand. It is no secret that there’s plenty of misinformation, and re-education, that needs to happen in the cannabis world. We wanted our brand to help facilitate that learning. In addition to being educational in nature, we wanted to take a measured, mature and even clinical approach to our content.

We’ve always tried to distance ourselves from the classic 'stoner culture' visual, and instead, to embrace a scientific-approved look. All of our designs work to push that mission forward. We rarely use conventional cannabis imagery in anything we do, and choose to speak in a voice that is symbiotic with the scientific vernacular. This approach is certainly one of the things that’s created so much interest from such a wide audience -both conventional and cannabis-specific, spanning a wide range of age groups. We’ve been able to work with some of the top minds in the space - from scientists and researchers to growers and engineers - and I think our content integrity is a big reason why we have garnered the respect we currently enjoy.

Having worked in other industries, what have been some of the design challenges you’ve faced while working in cannabis?
To be honest, we haven’t had to deal with many roadblocks. This is mostly due to the 1st Amendment and our constitutional right to free speech. We make printed material - books, artwork, charts, etc. - and thus, we deal in information and education. No one has challenged that, thankfully, nor do I think they can. We’re based in Ohio in a very red county at that. We work with a good deal of local businesses and service providers and the reaction to our brand has been almost entirely welcoming and warm. I’m very thankful for this and I think it is positive affirmation of the coming changes.

That said, "forward thinking" entities like Google, Facebook, Pinterest and other tech giants continue to be a thorn. I know this is common and understood with other cannabis brands, but because we walk a tight line - a cannabis company who is not a cannabis company - I can’t help but feel frustrated when we are barred from certain online services simply because we have a few blacklisted keywords on our site, or because some of our artwork depicts a cannabis flower.

Based in a non-legal state, how does prohibition affect your design process?
Simply put, most people love what we do, and they love the idea of working with Goldleaf here in Ohio - they see it as proof that the industry helps create jobs, which it does. This has been a real gift for us since we’re in a place to make many people’s first impressions of a cannabis business a good one.

Beyond that though, 90% of our design team is not in Ohio, including photographers. They dwell in either a legal state, legal country, or in Europe. Thankfully, we haven’t had any pushback from creatives we’ve approached or partnered with. I think there are many reasons for that, but one of which is an opportunity to work with a subject that has previously been off-limits.


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