Winter 2000

The Press Release

The press release is one of the principal methods through which design companies, art directors and ad agencies speak to the media and the world outside. What does the press release say to the journalist during its brief journey from mailbox to wastebasket?

With more than 5000 signifying characters, John O’Reilly’s The Press Release was three years in the making. The special effects were created on Windows 2000. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. John Walters of Eye magazine said “It is a great achievement. The Press Release will be the measure of all graphic design writing in the twenty-first Century.” It’s also available in text only.

Sometimes, late at night as I close my tear-stained copy of The Will To Power, that is how I imagine my press release. And despite the evidence to the contrary, in my mind’s eye I imagine a press release as the teasing opening credit sequence in a movie. The press release as the gravelly voice-over you get on video previews: “Only one man could save graphic design. And to do it – he had to deal with the Russian Constructivists. His name was – Brody.”

The fact is that most press releases conjure up all the complex emotions that you get when reading the nutritional ingredients of packet soup. Take these opening lines: “The Pepsi Music Portal has been developed to appeal to a broad online target audience with interests in music of varied genres. This strategy continues Pepsi’s heritage in music but extends the reach of their previous activity.” Your mind starts fidgeting halfway through the first line, desperately seeking a stray sliver of interest as you catch an unwelcome glimpse of time-without-end, of eternity. Sartre said: “Hell is other people.” What the notorious egocentric really meant to say was: “Hell is other people’s press releases.”

As any journalist will tell you, in information’s Darwinian struggle some press releases barely survive their struggle through the letterbox. Others have the half-life of a bowl of cornflakes and a slice of toast before heading upstream into the bin. Behind the construction of the press release is the assumption that the journalist is a unique species: completely unlike the consumer, for example, on whom a vast array of sophisticated skills and seductions are employed to snatch some attention.

The strangest thing of all is that designers and art directors, the people whom you might think have a head start on communication, produce the most turgid press releases. The tone and imagination of the press release demonstrates a certain element of fantasy – that the contemporary journalist and editor has the concentration and dedication of a medieval monk.

Take a recent press release from Form promoting their online shop For the “skim factor” it gets ten out of ten. It has a perforated Form business card on the front page and as you flick through it has silver dots in the margins (typesetting punch-card code for the word Form) that matches the holes on the front page. It has colourful screen grabs from the site. They did the work and I’m hooked. So I return to the front page, ready to listen. But for openers I’m presented with a mini-lecture on “branding” and “shopping”, in a quotation that’s as long as this paragraph.

And as you go down the page, text is emboldened in random fashion. Its intention is to emphasise key words, or perhaps even buttons you can click on the site. But what the emboldening emphasises is that the text itself is not doing its job, unable to highlight ideas or punctuate points, incapable of leading the reader along. Despite Form’s sharpness about branding and the buying experience, it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that a journalist is a shopper, too. The journalist wants to be sold something in order to sell it on to an editor of a magazine or newspaper. An editor was to be sold an idea in order to fill space. In reading a press release the journalist is shopping for three things: facts; ideas; mood. A recent press pack from American designers Funny Garbage (see Eye no. 27 vol. 7) contains a swathe of stickers and colourful press releases promoting Web design projects for such as MTV Interactive and Barnes & Noble. But the object that catches your eye in the slightly unpleasant glossy folder is the functional, ugly, handwritten note from an assistant whose form communicates everything about the concept behind Funny Garbage and the user-experience they aim to deliver on the Web – the personal touch, the interaction with a friend.

Though there is a case to be made for designers, if they can afford it, to get someone else to promote them, someone less self-conscious, you have to be careful. The bio at the top of the page for Steve Edge design reads “Steve Edge: Prophet, Madman, Wanderer.” Perhaps his blue chip clients like the idea of dealing with a “creative” and are seduced by the stereotypes. There’s no doubting his impressive portfolio. Yet from the evidence of his press release, though I might let such a character read my Tarot in Camden Market, I’d no more commission him to design for me than I’d hire Uri Geller.

This is not the only example. Outside PR agencies often make design companies look like the feverish creations of a GCSE media student. While designers themselves think in images rather than words, the press release seems to be ruled out as a vehicle for this. So we are left with words. There is one solution, however. Get an extraordinary, jaw-dropping and truly fantastic commission such as “re-branding Germany”. Which is what Wolff Olins did. By the simple virtue of grand scale it transforms the redundantly obvious into sophisticated sociological insight.

The press release in Ten Easy Steps
• Have lots of money. Spend it lavishly and you will look as if you mean business.

• If you don’t have lots of money you’ll just have to make do with imagination.

• If you are outsourcing your promotion at least make sure your PR knows how to spell the word “design”.

• Remember that journalists are closely related to goldfish. They have a three-second memory span. Make your point. And make it again. And again.

• Send everything in a folder, or keep it to a page. The average journalist is incapable of handling more than one sheet of A4 at a time.

• If self-promotion seems a bit too crass, die, and return as the re-incarnation of Tony Kaye.

• If all else fails to get attention, try the approach of designer Ian Holcroft: “Hello . . . I am a designer who has sent you gifts. I hope you like my stainless steel chip fork and promotional material. I think this fork is a design icon and the chip shop a national identity.”

• Hire Ian Holcroft.

• Re-invent yourself as a digital agency in Hoxton Square and throw parties to promote the press release.

• Hire Wolff Olins to re-brand you as a nation state. Then pass a decree demanding that your subjects read your press releases under penalty of death.

John O’Reilly, writer, editor, London

First published in Eye no. 38 vol. 10 2000

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.