Whether you speak Chinese, Spanish or English, the planet’s most widely used languages, there’s always going to be some place where nobody can understand your request for directions to the nearest police station. With this traveler’s reality in mind, three Swiss friends decided to create IconSpeak: a t-shirt with 40 icons the wearer can use to communicate when abroad.
The images help with questions about tourists’ necessities, such as the search for a Wi-Fi connection, a bathroom, a restaurant, a place to sleep, or an airport or train station, as well as more serious needs, such as how to contact the emergency services. Sales of the shirt, released in February, have risen over the last few weeks thanks to social networking sites worldwide.
The idea of a talking t-shirt is hardly new: dictionaries with icons for travelers have existed since the 1990s. One of the pioneers was PointIt, by Dieter Graf, which included 1,300 images arranged thematically to get out of any situation abroad. The idea came to the author, according to an article in the El Viajero section of EL PAÍS about dictionaries without words, on a trip to India in 1976: “If you have ever tried to buy a safety pin in Asia, you will understand why I created Point It,” he said. Graf published his first edition in 1992 and has sold more than two million copies since.
After PointIt, similar dictionaries such as Me no speak appeared with lists of icons and in formats designed for different countries. The IconSpeak t-shirt has the advantage of being easier to transport, more accessible and more difficult to lose than guidebooks (except on nudist beaches), although new forms of technology also offer alternatives: applications such as Icoon offer pictures for travelers classified by themes with detailed drawings.
But like the icon dictionaries and apps, t-shirts have the same limitations: they are very useful to communicate with local people, but there is no way for them to say much in response.
English version by Anne-Gaelle Sy.
Sign up for our newsletter!
EL PAÍS English Edition is launching a weekly newsletter. Sign up today to receive a selection of our best stories in your inbox every Saturday morning. For full details about how to subscribe, click here.