Design Museum Everywhere – An Interview with Sam Aquillano

Design Museum Everywhere is a nonprofit, nomadic museum of design. One might legitimately ask what that means, exactly. By now many in our community already have participated in, attended, read or listened to a production of this prolific organization. But to answer the question for those not familiar with it, I recently spoke to Sam Aquillano, its founder and Executive Director.

Bob Beck (BB): Tell us about how and why you founded the Design Museum Everywhere and with whom.

Sam Aquillano (SA): “A lot of people don’t know what design is, or they have a lot of preconceived notions, like design is what I see on HGTV, or design is the latest Apple product or design is a building and while all those answers are correct, design is really much more.

“I live in the Boston area and there are a lot of designers living and working here. We have a lively, friendly community, but it’s a fairly closed community with designers talking about design mostly with other designers.

“When I chose design as a career my own parents, who are smart educated people, had no idea what design is or how I might make a living doing it. So in 2009 I was teaching design at Babson College and a friend of mine and I had this idea to create a traveling exhibition that would travel around Massachusetts and we’d have different examples of design and expose people to design in a different way.

“Then being ambitious, we – my co-founder, Derek Cascio and I, along with a few volunteers said, ‘Well why just have one exhibition? We should be a traditional museum. Let’s find some space, raise some money and create a design gallery and some programming.

“But we quickly ran into, literally, a brick Wall. We had no money we had no insurance and it was during the Great Recession. So we had to decide if we should quit and give it up or figure out something else.

“Even then our Tagline was, ‘Design is Everywhere; so are we’ and that’s when we said, ‘Wait! Remember when we had the idea of a traveling museum?’ and that’s when we pivoted and became a nomadic museum. So we’ve never paid for exhibition space, in fact the only physical space we pay for is a couple of storage units where we store artifacts. And that makes us very capital efficient – we can pop-up in places where traditional museums aren’t and we can reach audiences where they are. They don’t have to come to us, we can go to them.

A pre-Covid traveling exhibition. Photo Eriola Capay


BB: So you started down this path 11 years ago. Tell us a bit about where you are now.

SA: “Our mission has evolved somewhat. As we state It: Our mission is to bring the transformative power of design everywhere. We inspire people by showing what’s possible through public exhibitions, events, and content. We educate people to become creative problem solvers using the design process. We transform, using design to take action and make change, demonstrating its impact.

“ I love museums of all types and you don’t have to be a scientist to go to a science museum – they’re trying to make science accessible. So that has been my inspiration from the beginning as we try to make design accessible to everybody…to my mom or any person walking down the street.

“We want to reach the broadest audience possible to increase people’s understanding of the power of design. We intentionally keep a broad view; so broad that sometimes it feels like we’re trying to boil the ocean. But about five years ago we launched 12 impact areas that we focus our work on: vibrant cities, social impact, play, education, entrepreneurship, business,         healthcare, workplace innovation, sustainability, data visualization, diversity and civic innovation.

Temporary “Design Museums – Everywhere”

BB: Well that’s broad all right. I’m aware that you do lots of events, have a weekly podcast and it seems that you’ve really doubled down on the whole virtual thing.

SA: “Yes, We’re redefining what it means to be a museum in the 21st century — we are online, nomadic, and accessible to all. Instead of a single museum location we pop-up all over the city in places where people already go. Whether in a gallery, retail environment, public space, office, or lobby, you can find our events, exhibitions, and programs everywhere.

”We do most of our public events & exhibitions in our Branches – cities where you can regularly find our programs. We have 2 main branches: Boston and Portland, and we’re working on starting additional branches in more cities. We also pop-up our programs in partner venues across the country.”

BB: What impact has the pandemic had on your work?

SA: “It’s strange how our organization evolves. A good example is our new exhibition, We Design: People, Practice, Progress. It premiered in the Fall of 2019 as a physical traveling exhibition at the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Boston, MA, then it travelled to Bow Market in Somerville, MA; to Boston City Hall and finally to Clay Creative in Portland, OR.

Phil Freelon, celebrated architect whose inspiring story is part of We Design.

“COVID-19 and the country’s awakening to centuries of racial injustices motivated us to transition We Design to an online resource to make the designers’ stories available to everyone, everywhere.

“Now a part of the museum’s permanent collection, We Design will forever be available online and continue to evolve and grow in the weeks, months, and years ahead, featuring more career stories from individuals showcased in the original traveling exhibition.  We Design is available to travel and will resume as a traveling exhibition once it is safe to do so.

“And once we started down the virtual road we found all sorts of opportunities. We now have a weekly podcast, a newsletter, a magazine, blogs in our 12 impact areas and we’re about to publish our second book.

“On January 26th we’re even holding our Annual Meeting virtually, complete with time for virtual networking both before and after the Annual Meeting. Anyone interested in attending can register for free, online.”

The Design Museum Everywhere website paints this picture of the We Design exhibit, “We Design brings together the stories of creatives from a wide range of backgrounds to examine and celebrate the range of career paths, applications, and impact in design. We Design Beyond truly representing our community, each story shows that when creatives of different backgrounds and expertise come together, we can effectively create change and design for a more inclusive world.

It’s an exhibition program designed to inspire young adults, particularly women and those from historically underinvested communities of color, to explore careers in creative industries. The collaborative, evolving exhibition features career stories showcasing how people have forged their unique paths into different creative professions; from graffiti artists and architects to civic designers and strategic planners,


A grid of designers whose stories are part of the virtual We Design exhibition

It emphasizes the need for more racial and gender diversity in design and innovation fields and highlights the importance of equity and inclusion in terms of generating ideas.

A Design Museum publication.

The program explores reasons for the lack of racial and gender diversity in the creative industries through quantitative and qualitative data visualizations. The exhibitions also features a significant group of people of various ages, genders, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and identities — showcasing their unique career paths through stories, photos, and videos, along with artifacts and examples of their professional work from their careers. The program also includes events for young adults, their parents, and professionals to learn about these creative careers.”

It is highly gratifying to encounter a person with the energy and talent of Mr. Aquillano so focused on doing so much altruistic work. But Mr. Aquillano is far from being alone in this endeavor. Design Museum Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit organization and it is generously supported by a number of corporate sponsors and individual donations of time, money, talent and energy from individuals energized by its mission.