March 4, 2020

Design Feast’s Makers Series—106th Interview: UX Designer and “We Should Get Together” Author Kat Vellos Researches and Advocates Lasting Friendships

I discovered Kat Vellos, a UX Designer, through her side project “Better Than Small Talk” (read her interview in my series on Side Projects), an activity centered on community and designed to reduce friction in making human connections. Her work explores social wellness, the challenges of friendship during adulthood, and how to create relationships that are authentic, durable and rewarding. She recently launched her new book “We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships.” Here, Kat elaborates on the importance of true friendship in the digital age and shares how she made her book a reality.

1. Congratulations on getting real your book “We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships”! How did you arrive at friendships as both a personal focus and passion?

I became fascinated with the topic of friendship after I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and found it to be a surprisingly difficult place to form strong, deep, recurring friendships. I started researching the topic with lots of people and discovered that a lot of other people cared about it and were having a hard time with this issue as well. Community building is a passion of mine and so I couldn't resist digging into this topic further.

2. In these times, how is friendship relevant and critical—more than ever?

Friendship is as relevant and critical as ever, perhaps even more so considering the loneliness epidemic that plagues our country and our world. We hear a lot of articles every day about how people are isolated and lonely, but we don't have as many pieces of media focused on the cure for that loneliness, which is connection—most frequently served in the form of friendship.

3. Regarding your creation of the gathering “Better than Small Talk,” you stated in my Side Projects interview that you made it “as a way to foster community, reduce isolation and inspire more open, authentic connections between people.” Was this one of the main motivations, inspirations, behind researching and writing “We Should Get Together”? Can you elaborate on this?

“Better than Small Talk” (detail above) was one of the first experiments that I did when I encountered difficulty with forming deep and resilient friendships. Many of the people who came to “Better Than Small Talk” sought it out because they were dealing with the same issue. Many of the conversations I had with them were what led to me researching and writing “We Should Get Together.”

4. Would it be correct to describe yourself as a Friendship Designer? Why or why not?

In some ways, yes. Maybe Connection Coach or Connection Designer is a better title. In the book, I offer a variety of intentionally-designed connection and friendship-building processes. “Friendship designer” is an unfamiliar phrase or concept because I don’t think that most people consider friendship something that needs to be designed—especially not when we’re young and our friendships “just happen.” But just like a person can intentionally set out to gather and coalesce a community group for a specific reason, similarly we can gather and coalesce friendship with the same intention and that is a form of design.

5. In your book, you advocate “hydroponic friendship”—love this phrase’s wording and the concept. Technically, how did you arrive at coining such an elegant term? Intellectually, what does it mean essentially?

I have a passion for gardening, and fun fact: I’m a certified Master Gardener in the State of Washington. Consequently, a lot of the metaphors that I use to think about life and to process information often come through gardening metaphors. What I kept finding in my research was that people lacked the perfect conditions for growing friendship: abundant time, close proximity and effortless intimacy. In gardening, you can grow plants without soil if you use water and nutrients. And so “hydroponic friendship” was concept that popped into my head one day when I tried to think about how to conceptualize a way to grow friendship despite lacking one or more of the resources that makes it very easy such as abundant time or living in close proximity to all the people you want to be friends with. Hydroponic friendship means applying intentionality, vulnerability and creativity the way that you might apply fertilizer and clean water to growing hydroponic plants. In that way, you can nurture and grow successful friendships despite not being in the same kind of “gardens” in which we grew our friendships as youth.

6. Your book-making process: What was the timeline for this project? What were tasks that proved integral in managing it as smoothly and productively as possible?

I worked on the project off and on starting in 2016. The first couple years were very exploratory, where I was having a lot of qualitative interviews (detail above), surveys and doing research into academic studies about loneliness and human connection. But I decided in 2018 that I wanted to finish the project by the end of 2019. And 2019 was when the bulk of the work took place. I found an…

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