When bad layout leads to calamity

Josh Wilson | February 5, 2020

Remember the confusion over the winner of the Oscar for Best Film in 2017? Warren Beatty was set to announce the winner when he was accidentally handed the envelope for the Best Actress Oscar. He knew something wasn’t right when he opened the envelope and read the card, but he wasn’t quite sure what. Co-presenter Faye Dunaway then incorrectly announced that La La Land had won the Best Film category.

Why did they announce the wrong result?

Why did the presenters get the result wrong? Wouldn’t they have immediately realised they had the wrong card?

This is the card that Beatty saw:

Image, card from 2017 Oscars with Emma Stone's nomination for her performance in La La Land

The infamous card that caused all the trouble. Image by benjamin bannister / freeCodeCamp licence

The problem began with the designer emphasising information the reader already knew. It appears that the designer thought the Oscars logo needed to be the largest thing on the card. In this situation, when the readers needed to find important information very quickly, the logo only distracted them — they already knew they were at the Oscars!

The names of the actress and the film are the same size, so you can’t tell at a glance which one is more important.

And the award category is hidden away at the very bottom, in small italics that would be easy to miss in the heat of the moment.

How reordering the information could have saved the day

In a blog post about typography, Benjamin Bannister demonstrates how simply reordering the four components on the card could have avoided the mix-up.

Image, 2017 Oscar nomination card with typography corrected

The original award announcement is on the left, with Bannister’s reordered card on the right. Image by benjamin bannister / freeCodeCamp licence.

In Bannister’s redesigned version, it’s immediately clear that the actress’s name is the most important piece of information. If Beatty had been handed this card, his eye would have been drawn to Emma Stone’s name, and he would have known he was reading the wrong card. Placing the category at the top of the card makes it clear what the award is for.

Why typography matters — especially at the Oscars has more detail from Bannister.

Avoiding trouble in your own writing

Write’s Plain Language Standard is a checklist of ten elements to ensure your writing is effective. Two of the elements deal with the problem at the Oscars.

Layout needs to help the reader absorb the message quickly and easily

Typography tends to be the domain of the designer, as Benjamin Bannister shows. But when you’re writing at work, your layout is part of the work you do to help your reader understand your content.

Layout includes things like white space, using ‘Styles’ in Microsoft Word, line spacing, font choice, font size, margins — even page numbering and a table of contents. The aim is to make it easy for readers to find their way through your document, and to see your main messages without having to hunt for them.

Headings need to signal key content

The Oscars mix-up illustrates how important heading size and order is, and in bigger documents this is equally true. If your headings drop down proportionately in size, your readers will be able to see the hierarchy — which content sits under what. Proportionate sizes look more professional too.

Headings represent the ‘skeleton’ of your document — when they’re extracted into a table of contents, you can use them to see the structure. Even at the writing stage, this table of contents is a good way for you to evaluate the structure of your work. You can then ask yourself — is it logical? Does it hold together? Does information appear in a helpful order for the reader?

Remember that your audience comes first, so think about what questions your readers might have and what they’re interested in. Also think about what your readers might be experiencing — will they be stressed, relaxed, focused, or distracted? How important is your document to them? You don’t want them to have to search for information or struggle to understand what you’ve written — they might decide they don’t have enough time to persist with it.

Helpful resources from the Write vault

Format your headings like a pro

How to plan and structure your writing with descriptive headings

Write’s Plain Language Standard is available as a free download if you’d like to use a checklist with your writing.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.