First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Sam Aquillano: We’re hanging in there. We have two young children, a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, so we were planning on being pretty home-bound the next year or so, but not this home-bound. There are challenges, but we’re focused on staying healthy and spending extra time with our kids now that I no longer have a commute.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Design Museum Everywhere.
Sam Aquillano: My background and passion are in design as a creative problem-solving process. I studied industrial design at Rochester Institute of Technology and then designed consumer electronics at Bose Corporation. While I was there, I ran the Boston chapter of the Industrial Designers Society of America, a professional group for product designers. I got the fortunate opportunity to teach design at two Boston colleges, Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Wentworth Institute of Technology.
In every aspect of my life, I focused on design: doing design, building a design community, and teaching design — but my problem was I was just surrounded by designers. Design impacts us all, so I wanted to broaden the design conversation to include as many people as possible.
My idea was to start a design museum. Much like a science museum where you don’t have to be a scientist to visit, I wanted to create a design museum where you didn’t have to be a designer to attend, engage, and learn. I sketched the original idea for Design Museum Everywhere on the back of a pizza box late one night in a meeting with my co-founder Derek Cascio. The notion was to make the design museum as accessible as possible. Our vision was a traditional museum, but this was 2008-2009, starting a new nonprofit museum during a recession proved extremely difficult.
How does Design Museum Everywhere innovate?
Sam Aquillano: Back then, we had to innovate by necessity or give up. Everyone we talked to thought we had a great idea, but no one had money to support us during the Great Recession. We had to think differently about what a museum even is, and where it is. We looked at the problem from multiple angles. I started an MBA program the same month I started Design Museum Everywhere — looking at it as a business problem. I realized the highest costs for a museum are the facility and marketing to draw people into the facility; what if we didn’t have a building? Also, our content, design, is everywhere — perhaps the design museum should be everywhere?
So we turned the museum inside out and turned the entire city into the Design Museum. We’ve redefined 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. Design is everywhere, so are we.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Sam Aquillano: The pandemic has hit museums hard, and we’re certainly not immune to the effects. Still, our innovative model allows us to continue thriving because we’re agile and adaptable, and we can continue our offerings online. We’re able to build our audience nationally and internationally — since March, we’ve grown our membership to include folks from 44 states and 17 countries. We had to pause our traveling exhibitions and pop-up events. We brought our We Design exhibition online and launched a weekly podcast called Design is Everywhere, where we feature stories of people and organizations using design to impact and change the world. We also launched multiple youth-focused design education programs to help parents and teachers teach design to kids in-person or remotely.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Sam Aquillano: Absolutely. We’ve had to pivot and shift focus — during March, April, and May, it almost felt like it did back in the early days of starting the Design Museum; there was just so much to think about and do. I think if we take one thing out of this pandemic time, it’s the focus. We’re a creative bunch, with a very creative Board of Directors and Council behind us. Ideas are continually flowing — we have more ideas than we can execute. COVID-19 created a crucible in which we had to decide quickly: what are we doing and what are we not doing. We’ve said “no” to a lot of things so we can focus our limited time and energy on the things that matter and make an impact on our audience and supporters.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Design Museum Everywhere in the future?
Sam Aquillano: I plan. In early-March, when COVID first really came on the radar in the U.S., I did a scenario plan with my executive staff. We built models for the pandemic lasting 3, 6, 12, and 18+ months. That scenario plan has served as a road map, along with our strategic plan, which we wrote in 2019 — pre-pandemic — but the elements within it helped us focus on what we could and should do during and after the pandemic.
I won’t say our approach and organization are immune to a pandemic and economic recession, but starting during the last recession gave us the tool and mentality to adapt and shift with the changing environment around us. As a non-traditional museum without a facility, we’re uniquely able to change with the times. No matter what’s going on in the world, I believe everything we’re doing now is a prototype for what we’ll do next.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Sam Aquillano: Our competitors are many and include traditional museums and design museums and other learning and recreational activities. Our leisure time is at an all-time low. So we’re competing with the NFL, movies, hikes in the woods… you name it. We stay in the game by offering unique programming and content that’s accessible, interesting, and even entertaining for our audience — and doing it across platforms. I intend for Design Museum Everywhere to be the first nomadic museum and the first multimedia museum. We’re online, produce video, have a weekly podcast, and publish Design Museum Magazine and books — we have to meet our audience where they are — literally and metaphorically — to stay relevant.
Your final thoughts?
Sam Aquillano: I encourage anyone and everyone to check out Design Museum Everywhere. Whether you’re a trained designer or have a passing interest in how the physical and digital world around us is shaped, there’s something for you at the Design Museum — we’d love to have you in our community.
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