Could Design Thinking Have Saved the Oscars?

Author: Barbara Palmer       

In the days following the cringe-worthy fail in the final moments of the Oscars, there was no shortage of analysis by event professionals about how the mistake could have been avoided. (For those who have may have been unconscious during the last month, presenter Faye Dunaway was handed a card for the previous category and mistakenly announced that La La Land won for Best Picture, when in fact, another nominee, Moonlight, was the winner.)

Suggestions for preventive fixes rolled in, and most offered excellent advice, ranging from providing better coaching of the presenters to rethinking the way that the envelopes that held the winners’ names were handled. There were two sets of envelopes, one on either side of the stage — the mistake occurred because presenters were handed the card from the previous category. There should have been a fail-safe system for handling the envelopes — a checklist, maybe, event professionals suggested. And there should have been a plan for how to notify those on stage if a mistake was detected.

Amid all the logistical advice, digital content producer Benjamin Bannister offered a suggestion that zoomed in on the problem’s source — confusion over the content on the cards that held the winners’ names. What, Bannister asked, about typography? Organizers should have thought more carefully about what presenters see when they look at the cards they are reading — the award category was printed in tiny type, much smaller than anything else on the card.


The card that was mistakenly read in the Best Picture category — note the tiny type that identifies it as “Best Actress.”

The name of the award category should have been at least as prominent as the name of the winner, Bannister wrote. Then, even if the presenters had gotten the wrong card, they would have immediately seen that it was in error and would have asked the emcee or a producer to come to the stage to get it corrected.

Bannister’s suggestion illustrates the power of design thinking, a way of approaching problem-solving that first observes and then analyzes user experience. Event professionals are accustomed to thinking of audiences and attendees as users, but in this case, the users were the presenters. At the Oscars, they stand in bright lights in front of millions of people and they may not be wearing glasses even if they need them.

Bannister reframed the problem, which, as Bill Burnett and Dave Evans write in the book, Designing Your Life, is one of the most important mindsets of a designer. “In design thinking,” Burnett and Evans write, “we always say, ‘Don’t start with the problem, start with the people, start with empathy for the people who will be using our products.’”

It’s essential to have the mindset of always looking out for your attendees’ experience, and that’s the logical place to start. But what changes might happen at your events if you spent a little bit of time considering the user experience of everyone involved in your event? 

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