Talking with Strangers


A communication toolkit for coffee shops to heal a divided nation


Project Type 
Design Research | Product Design

Louis Elwood-Leach

MFA Products of Design, School of Visual Arts
Guidance from Claire Hartten & Kate Backwell
Fall 2016


How might we heal the empathetic divide from divisive politics in the United States through food and drink?


Talking with Strangers was developed as a toolkit to equip coffee shops and other establishments with interventions to encourage conversation amongst patrons to re-build empathy and trust in a divided society.


The Talking with Strangers toolkit is free—designed to be distributed over the web with a Creative Commons attribution license. The kit provides four ways to transform an establishment to encourage thought-provoking conversation—laddering up through varying degrees of involvement and engagement.

A general, placeholder design is the base template, but each intervention can be easily customized to match the brand and aesthetic of the shop, as shown in the banner image of each page below.


Project Summary

Louis and I summarized the project in a one page poster to show the journey of our research and prototypes. The project began with a class trip to Cambridge, NY to visit sustainable farms and learn about the complex food system. After the trip, we were tasked with posing a 'How might we' question along the theme of 'Food as Medicine' to research and prototype solutions. This project was an iterative process, for both the question and prototypes.

We want to revive the environment of the coffee house from the Age of Enlightenment. We are really hopeful that this toolkit will not only encourage a dialogue for proprietors to turn their 'coffee shop' back into a 'coffee house,' but will give them tools necessary to do it with minimal effort. The coffee house was the birthplace of public opinion—a place where individuals could get together, share thoughts, and develop progressive ideas. We see a new urgent need for that, and we see the toolkit as a way to help re-build empathy and trust in a divided society.