How context affects design: A lesson from the Oscars

Maia Ottenstein / Monday, April 10, 2017

Earlier this year, the infamous mix-up announcement for the Oscar’s award for Best Picture set the internet ablaze. Everyone took to criticizing the mishap, in which a presenter read from a Best Actress card instead of the Best Picture card, mistakenly announcing “La La Land” as Best Picture (instead of the true winner, “Moonlight.”) Designers were quick to criticize the card design, examining how the poorly thought out hierarchy and typography led to confusion that was easily preventable.

Today, in the Infragistics Design Team’s bi-weekly meeting, one of my teammates surprised us with a challenge: redesign the Oscar’s card that caused the ruckus.

The card that caused the ruckus. Image source

It was a fun activity and we all laughed upon seeing the similarity in our thinking of what needed to be done, except for one stand-out star from our office in Bulgaria. I will share those designs in a moment.

First, I want to address something that came up during our review of the problem. We were talking about the factors that contributed to the incorrect announcement. One issue was with the system for distributing cards, which almost begged for a mix-up. There was also talk of the person handing out the envelopes who was, allegedly, distracted by Instagram at the time. And, of course, we talked about the cards that made designers everywhere cringe.

As we reviewed what made our redesigns better than the original cards, I thought, “What role is context playing here? They must have great designers working for them. Was this design always a poor solution, or does the context in which we are viewing them make it seem worse?”

Here’s my logic:

Presenters at the Oscars always know what category they are presenting. Because the category is a given, it would be less important to the reader. The winner is the most important information on the card, and therefore it is front and center.


OscarsCardWComments (003)
A quick recreation of the original card, highlighting the treatment of text for “Category.”

I have other qualms with this original design. I think that the type for the actor’s name should be differentiated and have higher importance than the type for the supporting information, in this case, the film title. I also think that the Oscars logo neither needs to be so large nor placed at the top of the card because that information is redundant, although I concede that it may be necessary for branding and to ensure authenticity.

All in all, it makes some sense!

The problem was that, while Warren Beatty clearly recognized something was amiss with this card, Faye Dunaway thought he was fooling around. She was caught off guard and caught up in the excitement of the prank. In all the excitement she either did not notice, or did not find the card to be weird enough to question the writing that applied to the award they were presenting.

The problem with that problem, is that it shouldn’t have been a problem. Even in excitement, a simple and well-designed product should be easy to understand.

It is easy to see what could have been done, typographically, to make it obvious that they had the wrong card, even to a presenter who was thrown-off and wound-up by an unexpected joke.

If the category were displayed more prominently, Faye would have been more likely to see that it was the wrong card. If the actor’s name was more pronounced than the title of the picture she starred in, the clear emphasis on the actor’s name would raise a big red flag for someone presenting an award for “Best Picture.”

The possibility of a misplaced card changes everything about the considerations for its design. The Oscars worked hard to ensure that a card would not be lost. Yet, because they did not expect the wrong card to end up on stage, disaster ensued anyway.

And now a look at some of my teammate’s redesigned Oscars cards, potential disaster in mind. Warning: for the most part, they look very, very similar.


Card by Marin Popov


Card by Martín Loskin



Card by Darian O’Reilly



Card by Simeon Simeonev



Card by the rest of our team at the office in New Jersey



A lovely and spin on the card for Best Actress made by Spasimir Dinev


Thank you to my Infragistics teammates around the world for sharing your thoughts and inspiring this blog post!