Talking with Strangers, designed by first year students Andrew Schlesinger and Louis Elwood Leach, is a toolkit to equip coffeeshops with simple, customizable design interventions as a way to encourage conversation amongst their patrons.


"We see the toolkit as a way to help re-build empathy and trust in a divided society."


"We wanted to revive the environment of the coffee house from the Age of Enlightenment," offer the designers. "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 to tools necessary to do it with minimal effort." They add, "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. 


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


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." 

Prior to conducting field research and prototyping, Louis and Andrew researched the academic field of moral psychology to better understand the fundamental differences between liberal and conservatives. "The most influential finding for us was thought-leader Jonathan Haidt's assertion that “you can be disgusted by a group of people, but then you meet a particular person and you genuinely discover that they’re lovely.” This insight served the backbone for Talking with Strangers, since its ultimate goal is "to build empathy between people who disagree."

Talking with patrons and baristas of various coffee shops, there was overwhelming encouragement for the project. Barista Alexandra M. remarked, “We always think about what is different between me and you—never what is the same.”