October 3, 2017

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: User Experience Designer Kat Vellos cultivates optimal conversations through Better Than Small Talk



What are you working on—on the side?

I have so many side projects! I actually keep a list in a notebook of ideas and projects I want to do, and I explore them one after the other. Some have stuck around for my entire life, and some I’ve been satisfied to move on from after a few months. For the past couple years though, one of my ongoing side projects has been Better Than Small Talk.

I created Better Than Small Talk as a way to foster community, reduce isolation and inspire more open, authentic connections between people.

Better Than Small Talk has taken shape in a couple of ways:
  1. Through a group activity designed to help people break through the wall of small talk and get into real conversations, I get groups of strangers together and give them plenty of conversational prompts to ease the pressure of thinking of something to say on the spot. I curate the guest list to avoid homogeneity and ensure that the crowd contains a mix of diversity in terms of age, gender, profession, ethnicity and introvert/extrovert tendencies, etc.
  2. Through one-on-one interviews I hold with strangers, the first round of interviews centered on the topic of Community: how they define it, how much community people feel like they have access to in their lives, how fulfilled they are with their experience of community, etc. 
The core of Better Than Small Talk is the community gathering. As a facilitator and user experience designer who is passionate about community building, I’m intrigued by how people form meaningful connections and bonds to each other. I’m also very interested in the topics of neighborhood, spatial proximity on the cultivation of community, and the barriers to connection that occur, even when spatial proximity would imply that making connections ought to be easy.

On a more personal level, I’m introverted but not shy. This means that I like talking to people, but it usually leaves me feeling drained afterwards—so in order to make extra socializing worth it, I need it to be really, really good. Small talk leaves me feeling both drained AND not meaningfully connected/engaged, so it’s a lose-lose.

I created Better Than Small Talk for a few reasons:
  • To see if it was possible to fast-track relational intimacy and the formation of friendships
  • To affirm the power of intentional facilitation as a method to create connection and community
  • To provide an opportunity for others to feel more connected, heard, understood, and closer to each other
I also have plans to add more types of experiences and activities for participants who want to be a part of Better Than Small Talk. As I said before, I keep long lists of projects and ideas I want to create—so stay tuned!

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

It depends on the timing and what’s going on in the rest of my life. When I’m working on creating one of our larger community events, it’s easy to spend an hour or two every night after work for weeks: pulling together the logistics, communicating with attendees and folks on the waitlist, getting supplies, booking spaces, etc. When doing one-on-one interviews, I can usually fit that into the weekend, like during Saturdays.

Why have a side project?

There are so many reasons to have side projects!

Even though I’m very happy to have a job that I find engaging, meaningful and fun, there’s something to be said for working on a creation of your own. Side projects allow you to play all the roles: founder, creative director, operations manager, PR/marketing, receptionist, and yes, janitor. I get a lot of fulfillment from being able to take an idea from initial inception to full expression, and to have ownership over it. Seeing my ideas come to life is so exciting. It makes me feel really alive.

I also love learning and am a very experiential learner. Side projects allow me to learn and explore an idea, practice, hobby or habit through actually doing it. I can figure things out as I go, building on my previous experiences and gaining new levels of mastery with each step. That’s a very energizing feeling.

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Diptych courtesy of Kat Vellos.

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Read more about the joy of side projects.


This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.


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