Design Matters: Lessons from the Oscars Mishap

Sometimes serious problems are caused or at least aggravated by small errors that could have easily been avoided. Recently presenters at the Oscars ceremony briefly misidentified La La Land as the Best Picture because of a mixup with the envelopes.

As so often happens, the mistake was the result of a chain of errors. The representative of PriceWaterhouseCoopers should have handed the right envelope to Warren Beatty, who in turn could have noticed that the card did not say "Best Picture". But any system should be designed so that one error is not enough to cause a serious problem. There should have been additional checks in place to ensure that if the wrong envelope was given to the presenter they would simply ask for the right one.

Looking at photos of the ceremony it is very clear that poor design contributed to this mishap. On both the envelope and on the card inside the critical line "Best Picture" is printed in a very small font that is barely legible unless you hold the card very close. For a teenage presenter this might not have posed a problem, but since Oscar presenters are often older actors it's possible that they could not have read that writing without their reading glasses.

In this case the problem could have been avoided entirely just by redesigning the envelopes and cards to make the name of the award more visible on the exterior of the envelope and make both the name of the award and the name of the winner much clearer on the card. Something like this:

Poor design frequently causes confusion, though perhaps not always with the same consequences. But everyone can learn from this mishap how design really is important, not just in terms of aesthetics, but also in functionality. It's also a reminder that if you want to be sure that something is read correctly never forget that a sizable part of the population cannot read tiny lettering without glasses or lenses.

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