Kat Vellos: Speaker, Facilitator, Experience Designer


Many a designer has claimed human connection as the root of their professional practice. After all, with buzzwords like empathy and human-centered jumping out at us from Medium articles and “about me” pages, it’s easy to get swept up in the hype and tack this one last keyword onto your identity as a designer. I’m guilty of this myself. I assumed empathy was a part of every designer’s toolkit, instinctual almost: a quality we were born with in surplus. It took learning about Kat Vellos—an experience designer, speaker, facilitator, and author of the best-selling book We Should Get Together, among others—to break me out of this assumption and truly recognize the blood, sweat, and tears that go into human connection. After all, human connection isn’t always this spontaneous, lightning-in-a-bottle thing. It can be predicted, observed, kindled, and yes, designed. Perhaps more than anyone else, Kat Vellos has the credentials to prove this. And she has.

I could find little online about where Kat Vellos is from. In interviews, she’s mentioned living on the East Coast and the West Coast, as well as two other countries. She graduated from Flagler College in Florida with a degree in graphic design, taking on a position at a small local newspaper called Folio Weekly in 2001. Serving as the newspaper’s editorial art director, Vellos gained hands-on experience leading teams and collaborating with design professionals. She found the work meaningful but hoped to create a bigger impact, leaving the newspaper four years later. Vellos’ next four roles involved work with nonprofits, particularly those focused on youth development, personal and social empowerment, and social change. Soon, Vellos realized what her work was becoming: experience design. As she put it in an interview for Panion’s blog, “[Nonprofit work is] design work too, but it’s experience design for people’s real lives.” As someone who similarly stumbled into the field, I relate to this quote immensely (design exists everywhere, especially in the experience of others). Vellos’ interest in human behavior and psychology—paired with her graphic design background—eventually steered her towards UX. Moving to the Bay Area in 2014, Vellos joined an EdTech startup, working closely with the UX, Product, and Student Services teams within the company. She’d go on to work for Pandora, Slack, and others.

However, Vellos began to notice something as time passed. It was very difficult for her to befriend people. The connections she made seemed only to scratch the surface, leaving her with several acquaintances but few friends. What did Vellos do with this information? Instead of singling herself out as the problem (as I myself have done when faced with similar situations), she treated this pattern as she would in her professional practice. She didn’t take the situation personally and instead chose to tackle it with logic, curiosity, and research. This, to me, is both empowering and a true example of what it means to be a designer, through and through. In January of 2020, Vellos published her book We Should Get Together to widespread acclaim, removing the shame associated with social troubles and introducing strategies to make things easier. Later that year, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic then in full rage, she released an addition to her book, titled Connected from Afar.

But there was another problem: “I’d only met a handful of other Black designers and only one of them was a woman. I was sick of feeling like I was ‘the only one’ in a variety of my professional settings. I didn’t want other Black designers to feel that way either” (Panion). This sentiment also hits home for me as one of two Black women in my college’s interaction design program. As friendly and socially aware as my classmates and teachers are, my path will always be different from theirs. I notice myself leaning into my Blackness wherever I can, whether it be through products that benefit Black hair (I’ve designed two) or Black women provisional personas. Vellos understood that this longing exists, especially in tech where POCs are often outnumbered 3:1. Her solution: Bay Area Black Designers, a cohort of Black design professionals. Vellos ran it for seven years (2015-2022). In its prime, it boasted more than 500 members, hosting meetups, offering support, and safeguarding the experiences shared between its members.

It pains me deeply that I returned to the Bay Area the exact same year that this cohort became inactive (thanks Covid). I would’ve loved to connect with these professionals and swap stories, good and bad. I would’ve loved to explore the intersection of Blackness and design more thoroughly (though Afrotectopia does a pretty excellent job already). Vellos truly blazed a trail with Bay Area Black Designers, putting her research to good use. Although the group is no longer active, Vellos encourages others to follow in her footsteps and form their own communities. In fact, she’s written a whole set of guidelines for Forbes, listing out the do’s and don’ts and community-building in simple, short terms. And why not? Maybe one of these days I’ll launch Bay Area Black Designers 2.0.—carve out that space that I crave. Thanks to Kat Vellos, I won’t have to reinvent the wheel to do it.


Bauder, Penny. “‘Create Regular Opportunities for Your Team to Bond as Regular People’ with Penny Bauder & Kat Vellos.” thriveglobal.com. Accessed May 8, 2022. https://thriveglobal.com/stories/create-regular-opportunities-for-your-team-to-bond-as-regular-people-with-penny-bauder-kat-vellos/.

Bay Area Black Designers. “Bay Area Black Designers (2015-2022).” Accessed April 8, 2022. https://www.bayareablackdesigners.com/.

Panion. “Community Builders: An Interview with Kat Vellos,” September 9, 2020. https://panion.com/blog/community-builders-interview-kat-vellos.

Gettogether.fm. “Making Friendship More ‘User-Friendly’  Kat Vellos, Author of We Should Get Together.” People & Company, August 10, 2020. https://gettogether.fm/episodes/kat-vellos

Kat Vellos. Accessed April 8, 2022. https://www.katvellos.com/.

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Kumari Pacheco