How design principles could have saved the Oscars

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How design principles could have saved the Oscars
Posted on May 10, 2023 by Simon Dunn

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Here at Mustard Towers, we talk a lot about fame. Maybe we are blinded by stardust, but we think there are important lessons to learn from Hollywood about how we go about communicating effectively. And we apply those lessons – good and bad – when it comes to communicating insights.

When we think about bad communication, surely nothing gets worse than the cringe-inducing 2017 Oscars disaster when LaLa Land was inadvertently announced as the Best Picture winner, instead of Moonlight.

Before I come back to that story it’s worth saying that when most people in insights think about good communication, they think about the words we use and the channels we employ, but they think less often about graphic design. However, there are several guiding principles of graphic design that we see in modern communication every day, such as the use of white space, the importance of contrast and balance, which are subconsciously followed by our brains, but rarely understood. We ignore these at our peril!

So what has that to do with the Oscars disaster, you may ask? Well, if you look at what went wrong that fateful night, the reason was a failure in graphic design – a failure to follow those guiding principles.

In case you were not aware or have spent the last five years under a rock, Warren Beatty was handed the wrong card as he went on stage to make the most important announcement of the night. He was given the ‘Best Actress’ card (which had just been won by Emma Stone) not the ‘Best Picture’ card.

But this was just one error. It was compounded was the design and layout of the card itself. The largest text on the card given to the 80-year-old Warren Beatty was ‘Oscars 2017’ – but surely we’d expect Warren to know where he was, and why. The second largest text on the card was ‘Emma Stone – LaLa Land’ – which is why Warren hesitated and his partner on stage Faye Dunaway (a mere septuagenarian), leaned in and read out the name of the wrong movie. The smallest text on the card, right at the bottom, referred to the Academy Award itself – ‘Best Actress’ (not Best Picture). If you look closely at the film of the nightthe outside of the envelope is also blank, giving no indication of which award it was meant to announce. For some helpful visuals see the analysis by Benjamin Bannister here:

If the Academy’s graphic design team had thought this through, they would have realised that the hierarchy of the design of their card was wrong.  This is one of the most important guiding principles of graphic design. It directs the audience’s eye across a page, and through the narrative flow. The key information is the award itself – in this case ‘Best Actress’. If Warren had been able to read that easily, or if it had been written (in large font!) on the outside of the envelope before he opened it, he would have known immediately that the card was the wrong one.

Hierarchy is just one of several graphic design principles that we at Keen as Mustard believe researchers need to understand in order to communicate insights effectively (or, for that matter, to design good surveys). We use these principles to guide the design of all our materials, from a single chart to films, infographics and reports, so that they are not only visually appealing but also communicate clearly and effectively. There’s usually a reason why your message is not getting through and it’s often because the design principles have not been followed.

The principles we use most are:

  • Hierarchy – as we have just seen, this is the control of visual factors to show importance within the design.
  • Balance – the distribution of the visual weight of objects, colors, texture, and space.
  • Proximity –items placed closely together are perceived as part of the same group.
  • White Space – creates harmony, balance and clarity – using white space also leads a viewer from one element to another.
  • Contrast –the use of visually different elements to capture attention and highlight important information.
  • Alignment – Poor alignment will make a design look cluttered and unfinished.
  • Consistency – an overall visual system making things easier to understand.
  • Colour – different colour combinations offer varying experiences and visual contrasts for the viewer.

There were many other design failings in the systems and processes that The Academy and their consultants PWC adopted for the Oscars in 2017. But this simple and expensive graphic design failure in the layout of the card is one we can all learn from.

The graphic design principles are the guiding stars for good communication; they apply to everything visual. But most researchers have little understanding of good graphic design and why it matters. This is why we integrate the principles with our insights communication training. Storytelling is all very well, but if you don’t know how to present your material visually, in a way that is intelligent and clear, then even the most brilliant and interesting message is not going to get through. We’ll be exploring the impact of some other design disasters like this over the coming weeks. So, before you have your very own mortifying Warren Beatty moment, make sure to study and employ the right design principles.