How did you get started as a user experience (UX) designer? I got my BA in graphic design and then worked as an editorial art director for an alternative newsweekly focused on investigative journalism. It was meaningful, but I wanted to make a bigger impact. I spent the next several years as a facilitator and nonprofit program director at organizations focused on creative self-expression, youth development, personal empowerment and social change. That’s design work too, but it’s experience design for people’s real lives. During that time, I became more intrigued with human behavior, decision-making and psychology, which were all critical components of being a UX designer, too. UX was the best way to combine my existing skills in experience design and graphic design. Six years ago, I earned a certificate in UX at General Assembly and that’s been my focus ever since.
How have your experiences at tech companies such as Slack informed how you approach design consulting? I’ve been at tiny startups with 20 people and at large companies like Slack and Pandora. Regardless of company size, I prefer to work in an integrated way with teammates in product, engineering, marketing, sales, customer experience and business development since this all affects the user’s experience. As a consultant, I’m not only going to give you feedback on how to improve your onboarding flow or potential pitfalls in a visual design, but I’m also going to approach the consultation holistically including product strategy, marketing and customer success. I give clients the full scope of my expertise.
How has your background as a designer helped you create connections and build community? Design is the art of intentionality. As a designer, I see no limits on what can be considered a design project. My approach to creating community is rooted in the same principles. I’ve created and run groups on everything from professional development for Black designers to photography skill building to authentic connection to TED-style events where people share specialized knowledge to inspire and educate others. All of this is rooted in my guiding principles of community, creativity and connection.
When and why did you start the group Bay Area Black Designers? During my first ten years after college, I only met one other Black female designer. When I moved to the Bay Area in 2014, I was going to many design events and meetups, but rarely saw anyone who looked like me. I was sick of it. I didn’t want other Black designers to feel that way either. So in the summer of 2015, I invited the few Black designers I knew to come explore the creation of a community group for us. I could see the need. In the tech industry, less than five percent of the workforce is Black. We work in companies where we feel isolated, where our talents are underestimated and where we’re not given the same opportunities as our non-Black peers. We’re frequently “the only one” in conferences, meetups and college classrooms. To cope and move past these obstacles, we need supportive communities where we can talk about our challenges, get and give support, and access a nonjudgmental place to learn and grow. When I started the group, there were about five of us—now we’re more than 500 members.
You’ve written about how people can support Black Lives Matter. What are some specific ways you think the design industry can also be a positive force in this movement now? Design is about more than making cute app animations, smart toasters and logos on overpriced backpacks. Designers are responsible for creating the world around us. The unjust systems that lead to the oppression of Black people in our society were designed to work this way—it’s a horrible design, but it was intentional.
Designers need to take action. Accept your role in the implementation of policies and practices that lead to either oppression or liberation. Nonaction means that you’re choosing to retain oppressive systems. You have to pick a side. You’re either kidding yourself, thinking that being a designer just means creating color palettes with nineteen shades of gray in them, or you acknowledge that your role as a designer in society means participating in the ethical design of a world in which all people can be safe and free.
If you don’t work in government, law enforcement or the justice system, then get involved and influence the “designers” who are working there. Those people’s titles don’t say “designer,” but if you’re paying attention, it’s obvious that they are the designers of the world we live in. If you don’t want that job, then use your voice and platform to demand that they create ethical systems.
Designers must be dedicated to using their skills for the highest good in all ways. The fulfillment of that goal goes beyond getting Webby awards, likes on Dribbble or meaningless trophies—it means that you help create an ethical and just world. The reward is that you and the people you care about get to live in it.
What inspired your Better than Small Talk conversation-starter cards? When I moved to the Bay Area and was trying to make new friends at meetups, dinner parties and events, I felt like I was in the movie Groundhog Day, having the same conversation over and over again. I don’t want to talk about where I was born, where I went to school or what company I work for. It’s so limiting. I created Better than Small Talk based on my experiences as a facilitator. Great questions make for better conversations, and they are a wellspring for genuine connection. That’s why I made the Better than Small Talk question cards and event, and it’s why I encourage people to get outside their comfort zones and ask more-intriguing questions.
You also wrote the book We Should Get Together, which aims to help readers cultivate stronger friendships. How has your study of adult friendship influenced your understanding of UX design, or vice versa? UX design is about paying attention to humans, caring when they have unmet needs or when they face difficulty accomplishing a goal, and then methodically using research and design to devise solutions to their problems. Adult friendship is such a universally frustrating experience that it’s become a meme where people joke that they’ll just keep texting “we should get together” back and forth forever until they die. It's a joke, but it’s not funny. The medical community has proven that in the absence of meaningful connection, people are more likely to die earlier and with greater health complications along the way.
I experienced this problem when I moved to San Francisco in 2014, and it’s a problem felt by millions of people. During my research in 2018, around 50 percent of people in the United States reported that they felt lonely on a regular basis; in the short time since my book’s release in 2020, that number has risen to about 60 percent. We can’t ignore this.
I approached this like any other usability issue. I conducted qualitative research that I bolstered with an extensive literature review of the academic and scientific quantitative studies about connection, belonging, communication, bonding, health and wellbeing. I used my experience as a facilitator to experiment on my hypotheses. The culminating book offers solutions for adults who are having difficulty making or maintaining friendships. This is UX design in practice. Helping the world have more meaningful friendships is not a task that anyone hired me to do; I did it because I saw that it was a need that the world had.
What are some takeaways from your book that would be helpful for creatives today? Design’s generative skills, like creative thinking, experimentation, curiosity and empathy, are excellent for creating and navigating friendship. But design’s refinement skills, less so. The refinement process is exacting and critical, looking for flaws and errors and focused on achieving perfection and making comparisons against others. These habits are not helpful for producing healthy friendships. Friendship is filled with ambiguity and imperfection, and people need a judgment-free zone to explore vulnerability and build intimacy. Practice self-reflection to become aware of when you’re slipping into refinement work, and replace it with generative work when it’s time to make and deepen friendships.
If you could make just one conversation-starter card now, what would be the question on it? “What are you doing on a weekly basis to help create a world that reflects your values back to you, and how can you 10X your effort?”
What sites, apps or platforms are you frequenting today? I use Instagram (@katvellos_author) to share content about adult friendship, community, authentic connection and creating a more just world. On Twitter, anything goes. I also hop onto Ello to see what other artists are doing on a platform that hasn’t been completely destroyed by advertising interests. But my favorite site to visit is nature. Being surrounded by the fresh air, animals, insects and plants in my garden makes it my favorite platform to visit, and I spend as much time there as possible.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you began your career? When you’re young and early in your career, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that in order to maintain your professional reputation, you can’t rock the boat. That you can’t say anything that complicates or slows down the process. But that kind of self-censoring is damaging to the soul and the businesses and worlds we are trying to create. I wish I knew at the start of my career that it is always a better choice to open your mouth and take that risk. I know that now, and I am grateful every day for the freedom and empowerment that this knowledge gives me.