For Will Lentz, his master’s thesis Eating Together: Explorations in an Anti-Social Food System has as its central theme the promotion of a resurgence in the social value of communal eating experiences. In a time when isolation and independence are increasingly common, Lentz offers products and provocations aimed at bringing people back together over food.
This was, in part, inspired by regular encounters with ad campaigns for Seamless/Grubhub, the food delivery service. “I was seeing them everywhere,” Lentz recalled, emphasizing the negative messages the adds promote. “I remember feeling taken aback by the idea that people are being encouraged to avoid the truly human elements of food; the responsibility for its preparation, and the appreciation of the people involved in the process. Thinking about this regularly, I started to wonder what kinds of interactions might be able to create more value around our food experiences.”
“Our digital tools are an extension of our social selves.”
In re-valuing food experiences, Lentz looked for redefinition through the objects with which we eat, becoming increasingly convinced that physical behaviors were key. “First, I looked for answers in philosophy,” he said, “searching for conclusions about the impact of objects and spaces on the way we experience the world.” It was within that pursuit that he came upon Thomas Wendt’s Design for Dasein, an assessment of Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological studies from the perspective of product design.
Wendt discussed the dominant power of a user’s intent in defining the meaning and purpose of an object, pointing out that “we could eat cereal with a baseball bat, and that would give it meaning as a cereal-eating device.” Lentz took this example and ran with it. At the same time, he was drawing inspiration from others, like Dominic Wilcox, a designer and inventor who uses his work to reimagine everyday interactions with the world. At the intersection of Wilcox and Wendt, he found a comfortable place to make work. Lentz’s subsequent Rawlings for Wheaties started a chain reaction of products and provocations that rethink the way objects can change our behaviors around food.
“With the baseball bat, I was toying with the ability of the product to bring the championship experience to the breakfast table,” says Lentz, “flipping the idea of Wheaties putting champions on the field, looking anew at how tools and the way we use them can challenge and change our experiences at the table.” Similarly, The Potbelly Table continued that narrative. Inspired by communal, group-oriented eating experiences like crawfish boils and clam bakes, Lentz fixed the serving dish as the centerpiece of the eating surface, encouraging users to eat from a shared vessel, instead of separate plates.
Throughout, Lentz kept returning to the troublesome Seamless ads. “I couldn’t stop thinking about how much behavioral impact was being created by Seamless and similar products and services,” he noted, explaining an urge he felt to address the impact of digital products on our social lives. Similar products, including MealPal, and other online food-ordering services are notable for the avoidance behaviors they promote in providing people with convenient and independent dining opportunities. He saw a void that needed to be filled in successful food services that encourage people to eat together socially. The result - Tables.
While it may seem incongruous to counter damaging digital services with another digital service, Lentz defends the strategy, arguing “In truth, there is good work to be done here. Our digital tools are an extension of our social selves. They’re already engrained in our behaviors and there’s an opportunity to leverage that.”
Tables, a digital platform for connecting people in social circles, using home-cooked meals, is Lentz’s attempt to bring commensality back into the American lifestyle. Commensality, literally meaning eating at the same table, is the concept of creating and reinforcing social relationships around food. Tables uses the binary of host and guest to help people build new commensal circles.
Hosts have a table and a meal that they’d like to share, and a topic they’re passionate about using, to bring people together. They post their table in the form of an event in time, and guests can RSVP, based on their own interests. The meal itself is a facilitator for these new social interactions.
In early user testing, Lentz determined that users spend the most time between a table and other people’s profiles. This observation is leveraged through the final execution of the prototype, in which everything is focused on social capital, putting user information first. Tables is aimed at transparency, in many ways like Couchsurfing, focusing on the development of international social connections, rather than the value of a bed for the night.
“Tables focuses on ideas of hospitality and social reputation in that way,” says Lentz, “and I actually carry that idea into my physical products as well.”
He’s referring to Lunch Shift, a lunchbox he designed for two people. Lunch Shift takes the traditional lunchbox and transforms it into a mechanism that fosters a shared experience of hospitality. Two people share a lunch break, or “shift”. One person prepares lunch for both, with a serving in each half of the box. He or she then brings the box for lunch with their colleague or friend. The friend then takes the Lunch Shift at the end of the day. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The most elegant detail is the dovetail joint that binds the two halves of the lunchbox together. It’s the cornerstone of the whole interaction. The two boxes slot together, making it manageable by one person. The dovetail also acts as an indicator that each piece is part of something bigger. Lentz talks about that feature.
“I wanted it to feel like the two parts were joined all the time, even when they’re separated from each other. So I introduced the dovetail as a mechanism for connection and union that’s always there. The dovetail is also the secret behind how the bottom lunchbox’s lid works. In that dovetail joint, the second handle is concealed, so that you can easily tuck the two back together or separate them to carry them individually.”
At any given point, the dovetail joint maintains Lentz’s intended sense of hospitality as a reminder that yours is only one half of a two-person meal. This is a reiteration of his mission - a resurgence of commensality. By making and sharing a meal for and with someone else, the provider is committing to a commensal relationship with the other participant. In his ultimate vision, that burgeoning commensal relationship repeats endlessly as participants take turns preparing the Lunch Shift.
“I want to continue building a set of tools that give people more opportunities to communicate through shared eating experiences.”
Similarly, Lentz developed Collaboreating, a social dining experiment that leverages physical objects in order to augment commensal experiences. Unlike Lunch Shift, these are not everyday objects, and this isn’t an everyday experience. Collaboreating uses a key element of more intimate experience design, an inner circle of trust, in which everyday rules can be changed or broken. In this case, the objects morph the standard relationships between server and eater.
The Collaboreating experience builds on four interactions. The first is called Balance. Playing on plate passing at a traditional family-style dinner, Balance never allows users to put down the serving dish until empty.
The second is Lift. Lift requires some extra coordination between server and eater. Using a set of rails for control, this interaction gives command of a guest’s drinking glass to their neighbor.
The third interaction is Extend. Extend utilizes a pie server that’s been stretched to the length of the table. With widespread handles, it requires two guests to work together to serve a third. “What was amazing was the willingness of guests to accept the rules I gave them, and to push them even further, getting the objects away from the table,” said Lentz, “finding functions that they didn’t already have.”
At the end of the experience, guests were called to action with a fourth and final interaction, using the Sharing Spoon. The Sharing Spoon is actually a pair of spoons connected, much like take-out chopsticks. The joined spoons serve as an invitation to eat together. One participant breaks the spoons in half, offering the second spoon to a companion, and keeping the other as a kind of contract or agreement to share a moment of commensality.
“This is where Collaboreating is going next,” Lentz says. “Out into the world to be shared by others. I want to continue building tools that give people more opportunities to communicate through shared eating experiences.” He stresses the importance of commensality as a tool for social progress in contemporary food systems. Looking back, he sees it as the keystone of the work. Looking forward, Lentz is committed to the foundation principles of Collaboreating, with plans to expand his involvement in the resurgence of commensal behaviors in the world.