Think about the typical choking first-aid poster in a restaurant. It offers clear instructions on how to dislodge food stuck in someone’s throat. The poster is large enough to be seen immediately; its words are legible; the how-to graphics are easy to follow and understand. It isn’t art. But aesthetics shouldn’t be a priority when you have to save someone from choking to death.
That is not stopping a number of restaurants from asking designers to make signs with a bit more creative flare, to avoid having to display eyesores in their carefully curated shops. There’s now one for sale on Etsy.
The designs in the accompanying gallery range from a gritty action scene playing off the film Escape From New York to the Heimlich maneuver rendered as a tango move. Another, first made for a bar in Brooklyn, puts the lifesaving instructions along the border of a what seems to be a pretty soothing illustration of Mad Men types eating outside by palm trees—until you notice a bulging-eyed woman choking in the background.
Anna Shinderovsky, who made posters for an assignment in a continuing education class at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, reenvisioned it with sumo wrestlers and luchadores (she’s received inquiries but is not selling the poster). “If you are going to do something new, make it actually new,” she says. “Don’t just change the font color or draw a new character; make it truly new.”
The important question, of course, is whether style gets in the way of dealing with an emergency. It might just leave you breathless. Adding a conceptual layer to a rendering of the Heimlich maneuver means the viewer needs to have time to interpret the life-saving instructions. Simple images with minimal text—done well, that is—take less effort, and less time, to translate into action.
The designers interviewed for this story said they prioritized utility. For instance, Alex Holden, creator of the retro tropical poster, paid special attention to recreating the hand positions of the figures in the standard posters to illustrate the life-saving maneuver. He kept the text the same. He says, “There’s plenty of room to look nicer than the city poster and still be legible.” Holden estimates he has sold more than 300 copies of his reworked instructions.
Grey Jay, who made the tango-themed poster, says the standard health department signs succeed at being useful but fail in being “contextually pleasing.” Still, he says some of the redesigned choking posters he’s seen “could benefit by being complemented with the official poster.” (Of course, that would mean having two posters on restaurant walls, further cluttering the decor.)
“They say art is editing. I focused on providing the most amount of information in the least amount of space,” says Lara Antal, whose poster looks like a pared-down comic strip and ends with the victim buying her savior a drink. By making it attractive and adding humor, she says people will notice the poster and learn from it outside an emergency. She adds, “Good design can be present in any object, even when not in use.”