August 10, 2021

10 Questions With… Sam Aquillano of the Design Museum Everywhere

Design is, quite literally, everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it’s always accessible. To address this challenge, Sam Aquillano created Design Museum Everywhere, a nomadic-turned-virtual museum that aims to close gaps in industry disparities and return design to the communities it impacts near and far. 

Forgoing a permanent address, Aquillano, executive and creative director of Design Museum Everywhere, conceived of a museum that exists across many platforms and locations, complete with virtual and live events as well as a weekly “Design is Everywhere” podcast, which he hosts. Currently, Design Museum Everywhere is gearing up for its interactive virtual gala—Design Night LIVE—on September 25, featuring a keynote by Debbie Millman, host of the “Design Matters” podcast.

Here, Aquillano shares with Interior Design how he first became interested in the field, thoughts on ways museums can further accessibility and inclusivity, and insights on being named one of Fatherly’s 100 Coolest Dads in America.  

Interior Design: A tagged tweet on your website says “I express my creativity in google spreadsheets. And I love it.” Would you like to share a bit more about that?

Sam Aquillano: I started my career in industrial design and loved it. Most of my design career was at Bose, designing consumer electronic devices. It was my dream job ever since I was a kid, even though I had no idea it was called industrial design until college. The same month I started Design Museum Everywhere, I also started an MBA program at Babson College. I knew deep down the Design Museum was a good idea, I knew how to design this unique thing, but I wanted to learn how to build and run the business side of things. And, thankfully, that was a good decision. So these days I still do some design, but nothing like when I was a full-time designer—a lot of my time is spent in spreadsheets, organizing data, typically financial data. But who’s to say a spreadsheet can’t be beautiful? Every spreadsheet is a mini-information-design project—so I apply my design process to spreadsheets, and I actually find it quite fun.

ID: Is there a memory or an experience that stands out as the moment when you first became interested in design?

SA: As I said, when I was a kid I had no idea what design was—I know that’s true for many designers, and it’s part of what drives me at Design Museum Everywhere: To grow the public’s awareness of design, and design as a career. But I did know I wanted to create things. When I was 12, I got a notebook and on the cover I wrote, “Book of Ideas” and on the first page I wrote, “I’m going to change the world.” I filled that notebook from cover to cover with ideas for products, websites, video games, even business ideas. I was always interested in drawing, building, storytelling, and selling, but starting that “Book of Ideas” was a real moment. My mom kept it for years and recently gave it to me, so I still have it. I secretly enjoy reading some of my 12-year-old ideas and seeing that folks had the same ideas and made them real. 

“We Design” exhibition conversation cards showcase the contributions of architects and designers from diverse backgrounds. Photography courtesy of the Design Museum Everywhere. 

ID: Given your experiences as a designer for Bose, what are some parallels between creating electronics and interior spaces?

SA: I think a lot about this since I went from designing products at Bose to designing exhibitions at Design Museum Everywhere. There is a fundamental difference between creating space for people to inhabit, and enclosing space to create utility (a product), but I will say, working at Bose, there was a great unifier of the two: sound. I love music and typically have music on in our home—sometimes it feels like a soundtrack to our life, and our kids love to dance. I really enjoyed designing products as vehicles for sound and music to fill a space and add to the experience folks have in their home or office, anywhere really. I think it’s easy for product designers to forget that their products exist within an ecosystem of designed experiences, but it gave me a lot of joy to imagine people using my products to gather together and enjoy each other’s company. 

ID: Where did the idea to establish a nomadic design museum originate?

SA: I could write a book about this (and I am). I had the initial idea to start a traditional museum after visiting a handful of design museums around the world: the London Design Museum, the Red Dot Design Museum in Essen, Germany, and of course the Cooper Hewitt in New York. I’m based in Boston and I knew Boston was a huge center for design and creativity, yet we didn’t have a design museum. One fateful night over pizza, my co-founder Derek and I were brainstorming what this new Design Museum could be—I ripped off a piece of the pizza box and sketched out our ideas. I guess that was our take on the back-of-the-napkin sketch. I still have that greasy piece of cardboard with my sketches on it.

The idea started as a typical museum with a building and everything else. In my mind, I saw marble columns, pedestals, artifacts, a visitors center, the works. But this was 2008-2009—the Great Recession made it almost impossible to find funding for a new nonprofit museum, the economy was in shambles and, while folks thought it was a great idea for Boston, they just didn’t have funds at the time. Derek and I could have given up, but being the stubborn—super naive—twenty-somethings we were, we started thinking differently.

Our slogan then was “design is everywhere.” When we walked around the city we saw empty retail spaces, underutilized public spaces, and even the outdoor built environment—it was all a blank canvas. We started thinking, if design is everywhere… maybe the Design Museum should be everywhere too. When I looked at it from a business standpoint it was right there: the biggest expenses for museums are the facility, maintaining the facility, and trying to get people to come to the facility. As a nomadic museum we have zero real estate costs, zero maintenance costs, and while we do, of course, have a marketing budget, we can take our exhibitions and events directly do our audience wherever they already are: retail environments, schools, public buildings, outside, everywhere. So we amended our slogan slightly to what it is today: “Design is everywhere. So are we.”

Aquillano launched the “Design is Everywhere” podcast as a way for people to remain connected to design during the pandemic. Photography courtesy of the Design Museum Everywhere. 

ID: Accessibility is a cornerstone of Design Museum Everywhere, which is an especially timely topic. What types of initiatives have enabled the museum to achieve this?

SA: Accessibility is a key part of our vision, but the notion of what kind of accessibility has changed over time. At first it meant lowering the barriers of understanding so that anyone could be part of the design conversation. Too often design puts itself on a pedestal—too often you need to be a white male with dark rimmed glasses and a black turtleneck to be “a designer.” But design impacts us all, so our vision was that everyone should be welcome into this world of design. No more design at arms-length—if you wanted to learn about design in a safe place, we were that place. Just like you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy a science museum, we wanted to create a design museum where you don’t have to be a designer to learn and enjoy.

Accessibility then extended into the design industry and design as a career, and making sure that the industry was accessible to more than just white men of means. We have a firm belief that in order to have successful designs, design teams must represent a broad range of ages, races, and lived experience, because the world is filled with people of different ages, races, and lived experience. 

And more recently we’ve been working on how we [can] make the museum itself more accessible to people of different abilities, learning styles, and languages. I’m not the expert here, but luckily I’m surrounded by experts on my team who are moving us to be the most accessible museum we can be.

A pre-pandemic event for the “We Design: People. Practice. Progress.”exhibition. Photography courtesy of Eriola Capay. 

ID: How have you approached programming for Design Museum Everywhere during the pandemic?

SA: We pivoted quickly upon learning about the pandemic—not just because of the unprecedented times, but because we could, and that’s what we do. As a museum without a building, unencumbered by the traditional structures of museum institutions, we’re constantly shifting, prototyping, and responding to our audience. We can be so nimble day to day. So when the pandemic first took hold we did two things: We did some scenario planning on what things would look like for us if the pandemic lasted three months, six months, 12, 18, etc., and we opened our Strategic Plan and circled things that we had put off into future years, that we could do today. We even changed our name, our entire brand, in April [2020]. That’s how quickly we can move.

We shifted all our programming to be virtual with a focus on digital content and media. We had been traveling our exhibition our main exhibition, “We Design: People. Practice. Progress.” since November, and of course had to put it in storage in March. So we brought the exhibition online—you can see all the content on our website, and we’re adding more stories of women and BIPOC designers working in the field.

We launched two design education initiatives. We knew even back in March [2020] that parents and teachers would be looking for activities for their kids, so we launched Design Together—a collection of design activities for all ages. Folks can do the lessons online or download and print the lesson plans and resources. We also brought our teen design program onto Zoom and my team is really innovating on how you teach design to teens remotely.

The last thing I’ll mention here, we really doubled down on publishing. We publish a quarterly Design Museum Magazine filled with design articles and case studies, and we published our second book, “Bespoke Bodies: The Design and Craft of Prosthetics” last fall. 

ID: As the Design Museum continues to push forward the conversation on D&I with programming such as the “We Design: People. Practice. Progress.” exhibition as well as educational trainings, what are the next steps?

SA: Diversity, equity, and inclusion work is a key tenant and priority in our strategic plan—we launched two major programs prior to the pandemic: “We Design: People. Practice. Progress.,” which is an exhibition featuring women, gender expansive, and BIPOC designers working in a broad range of design fields. And we launched the Neighborhood Design Project, a mentorship and community based youth design education program for historically underinvested teens in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We’ll continue to offer up our platform to BIPOC voices and thought leadership as we have with our weekly podcast and Design Museum Magazine. This content and programmatic work also informs our internal work—we’ve enacted salary transparency, totally redesigned our hiring process to be more objective and equitable, and continue to roll out ways to empower our team and increase autonomy and transparent decision-making. It’s all part of the ongoing project to make our internal operation more equitable and to be a leader in increasing inclusion and equity in the design field overall. 

Design Museum Everywhere doubled down on publishing during the pandemic. Photography courtesy of the Design Museum Everywhere. 

ID: As a lecturer and design mentor to many, who do you consider to be your mentors in the field?

SA: I’ve had the real privilege of many mentors throughout my careers in design and nonprofit management. I was the youngest designer at Bose when they hired me in 2004, and thus I became a sponge for everything the design director, Michael Laude, and the senior designers had for me. Shout out to Carl Price, Rich Carbone, Seth Green, Julie Tierney, and Dave Pitcher. They taught me a lot about designing great products, but more importantly, they took ego out of design. For them, design was being part of a design team and part of a bigger project team, to produce something great together. They took me, a 21-year-old with his hair on fire, and brought me down to earth, and reminded me designers are just people responsible for delighting people. We must have been doing something right because in 2008 we won the prestigious Red Dot Design Team of the Year Award.

So many mentors in the nonprofit space, I’m overwhelmed thinking about how many people have helped me and guided me on this adventure. One in particular, Scott Reilly, was our board chair in the early days of starting the museum. Scott is an amazing, generous person who gave me so much of his time and expertise. He showed me that if I wanted Design Museum Everywhere to be successful I’d have to hire folks to do the programming and focus my efforts on fundraising. He was so right. He then proceeded to teach me everything he knew about raising money. I can honestly say the museum wouldn’t be here without his mentorship and his patience for a young Executive Director (me).

ID: You wear many hats from designer to public speaker to museum founder, how do you maintain balance?

SA: Great question… I work a lot. I’m fortunate that my wife, Nicole, is also an entrepreneur and so we understand the drive we both have to build our businesses and be successful. When our kids are napping or sleeping, we’re working. I haven’t had a proper vacation in 12 years, but that’s okay, I love this work and I get a lot of joy from working with my team. So I don’t think I have balance, but I’m happy, and hopefully I’ll get there someday. 

ID: You’ve been named Fatherly’s 100 Coolest Dads in America. Any tips on being a “cool” parent? 

SA: That was a fun surprise. I don’t know, I think having activities that you do together—fully do together—without checking the iPhone or multitasking, and making it real. My daughter and I are in our vegetable garden pretty much every day. She’s four, but she’s in there with me weeding and picking things, she feels a sense of responsibility and ownership in what we’re doing in there. We always take a photo together with our harvest and then we look at those photos together all the time. We draw together and design things. She likes to sit with me while I edit our podcast. I try to be present with her and see her, not simply be around, but really be there with and for her. 

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