An Exploration Of The Psychedelic Experience Through Design And Branding

by Libby Cooper on 02/16/2021 | 6 Minute Read

One of the big takeaways from November’s elections is that psychedelics have finally gone mainstream. With the passage of Measure 109, Oregon became the first state in the nation to legalize psilocybin—the active ingredient in magic mushrooms—for therapeutic uses. That same day, voters in Washington, DC approved a ballot initiative decriminalizing mushrooms as well as psychedelics like peyote and ayahuasca. That comes just a year after similar decriminalization reforms in both Oakland, CA and Denver, CO. 

It's only a matter of time before recreational psychedelics become legal in states across the country, just as cannabis has in recent years. But even before that day arrives, the number of people who have tripped—and that find pleasure and meaning in the experience of tripping—is sure to grow. 

As that happens, designers will face an intriguing new challenge. How can you explore the psychedelic experience through branding?

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For years, there has been a stock answer to this question, and it inevitably involved acid-trip colors, tie-dye, peace signs, and copy full of references to pink elephants and melting walls. But as anyone who ever experimented with psychedelics can tell you, these tired tropes have little to do with the actual feeling psychedelics elicit. After all, tripping is about stepping onto unexplored mental terrain, not about retreading old ground.

Now is the time for designers to find new, authentic, and unexpected ways of inviting consumers down the rabbit hole of psychedelic consciousness. Doing so requires throwing out a lot of the rules we all learned in design school. And what follows are a few guiding principles, ideas, and observations that I've found helpful in trying to evoke a psychedelic experience through my own brand, Space Coyote.

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Photo by Emily Eizen

First off, we must recognize that every trip is entirely unique. There's no anticipating what will happen after ingesting mushrooms or LSD. And, whatever does occur is almost always unlike any experience you've had before.

This uniqueness is something that needs to come through in your choice of words and images. Part of what made tie-dye such a powerful symbol of the psychedelic 60s and 70s is that every instance of it was singular. Through the simple process of twisting fabric and applying color, you can produce something dynamic, captivating, and—most of all—one-of-a-kind. 

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Photo by Jen Stark

Designers should look for ways to achieve similar results, but without self-consciously referencing a distant past. That might involve juxtaposing words and images that don't typically go together, which is akin to what we did with Space Coyote. The name found inspiration in the feeling my co-founder, Scott, and I had while drinking mushroom tea under a meteor shower in Joshua Tree. Space Coyote was born out of an experience, not some brainstorming session to decide on a brand identity for a company. The name Space Coyote came to fruition an entire year before launching a business. It was a phrase that captured the essence of being surrounded by friends, melting into the universe with Earth as our spaceship. 

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Photo by Jen Stark
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Photo by Carmen Chan

Designers might also experiment with new colors, patterns, and shapes that mirror the psychedelic experience in ways that subvert convention and expectation. I have yet to see an example of someone, a brand, or an artist, achieving what I am urging all of us to think critically about here. The elusiveness of the psychedelic experience is one that is ever-changing, always unique. There are artists on the rise who strive for this level of trip-aesthetic like Jen Stark and Emily Eizen. Each pushes the envelope in producing psychedelic graphics, but the category is in its earliest days of exploration. As a jumping-off point, you might ask yourself, what's the new tie-dye? What visual experience can evoke the psychedelic mindset for this new era?

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Photo by Jen Stark

Another aspect of psychedelics that designers can draw on is the "light bulb" moment that often occurs while tripping—that ecstatic feeling of newfound understanding. Psychedelic experiences tend to obey their own strange logic in which complicated things seem amazingly uncomplicated, and the simplest observations take on profound implications. Brands and designers should take inspiration from that sensation and seek to emulate it in their art and copy.  

For example, you might craft seemingly simple images and words that reveal deeper meanings the more you think or look at them. Perhaps you portray an ordinary object or event—a drop of rainwater on a leaf or a late-afternoon shadow—in an oblique or counterintuitive way. Or maybe you capture one of those split-second in-between moments that happen every day without our noticing.

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Photo by Emily Eizen
Editorial photograph
Photo by Emily Eizen

Similarly, your packaging could feature only a single word of copy, which takes on multiple meanings depending on how you interpret it. The point is to create visuals and text that pull the consumer in and cause them to look past surface-level connotations and appearances and see things in a mind-expanding new light. 

I'd also caution against using irony or cynicism in your design and branding. The psychedelic mindset is where the ego gets downgraded or dissolved altogether, so any hint of self-satisfaction or smugness will feel out of place. Instead, aim to excite feelings of genuine hope, optimism about the future, and connectedness—all of which are characteristic of the best psychedelic experiences. I don't mean the kind of blind, happy-go-lucky positivity of pharmaceutical ads or soft-drink commercials, but something genuine and even a little more profound.

Finally, I'd encourage designers looking to evoke the psychedelic aesthetic to ignore any of the above advice if it conflicts with their vision or inspiration. The closest thing to a chemically-induced psychedelic experience is the flow state of creation. I call this unadulterated feeling pure ecstasy—that sense of elation, a rush of joy so powerful that it overwhelms your system with a fizziness in your blood that immediately fuels your next idea, dance move, or pen stroke. For designers that can achieve that heightened mode of consciousness, their intuition will be a much better guide to capturing the sensations of tripping than any set of principles.

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Photo by Emily Eizen

What’s interesting here is that even my own brand Space Coyote, which I tout to explore the psychedelic side of weed, is not yet there. We rely heavily on the actual product—the Space Coyote joint—to do the heavy lifting, which is easy when the super potent joints literally send you to the moon. No brand has achieved the ultimate psychedelic experience through branding. At least, not yet. Perhaps it is the static nature of branding—our goal as designers to make a brand consistent and immediately recognizable and ownable—that is halting us from the fluidity and spontaneity of psychedelia. My favorite psychedelic rock band, Kikagaku Moyo, must, in my opinion, be listened to live to get the actual orgasmic ear-sex feeling. That is a prime example of how, even in music, psychedelia relies on the present moment. 

So what are we as designers supposed to do here? I’d suggest turning into true empathy, those heartfelt moments where you really felt something. Push yourself to both the uncomfortable places and the most joyous experiences of your life. These psychedelic experiences are an increasingly resonant way to connect with consumers. How to tap into these states of mind through branding and design is a rich and compelling question. And the conversation about how to answer it is just getting started.

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