Client Spotlight: Design Museum Boston

By Jenny Von Flatern

In Boston there are countless circles and squares, Washington Street goes on forever, and the entrance of a building on Milk Street is on Devonshire Street. It’s hard to imagine anything in Boston was “designed.” The team at Design Museum Boston shows how design can affect most anything. CIC sat down with Sam Aquillano, their Executive Director, to learn a bit more about their work.

Tell us a little about your team.

Design Museum Boston is a nonprofit, nomadic museum focused on design, launched in 2009. We’re redefining what it means to be a museum in the 21st century — we’re online, nomadic, and accessible to all through a network of exhibitions, events, and content. Our mission: Bring the transformative power of design to everyone, everywhere to ensure a world full of creative problem solvers. Design is everywhere. So are we!

We believe design can change the world. Done well, it can elevate our quality of life, make businesses more competitive, and protect our environment. Design awareness, education, and expertise are more important now than ever before as design continues to impact communities, organizations, and markets around the world.

How did you get into of non-profit, nomadic museums?

I started my career in product design working at Bose Corporation and then teaching design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Wentworth Institute of Technology. I was also the Boston Chapter Chair for the Industrial Designers Society of America. In all my work I was talking about design to other designers — but design is part of everything and no one was creating a broad public conversation about design nor promoting the power of creative problem solving.

Together with our founding team including my best friend, Derek Cascio, his girlfriend Jenna Casey, and my brother Steve Aquillano we started the museum with the intent of raising money, finding a space, and creating a traditional museum for design. But that was 2008/2009 — not the best time to create a new nonprofit museum. So we had to think differently and ultimately decided we didn’t need our own space — we could be a nomadic museum and pop-up all over the city. So instead of a single space, we turn the museum inside out and make the entire city the museum, and in the process we make it a more vibrant place to live, work, and play.

What was your biggest learning opportunity? What’s been your biggest milestone? What’s next?!

I came into the nonprofit sector as an entrepreneur, but basically knew nothing about running a nonprofit. But I believe in education and learning. Over 6 years I’ve learned a lot thanks to an amazing group of mentors and supporters. I think the biggest things I’ve learned are how to work with board members, how to monetize what we do, and how to run a nonprofit like a business. Next up: figure out how to scale to every major city in the U.S. We currently have branches in Boston, Portland OR, and San Francisco, but we have a lot to learn. I take a design thinking approach to everything, we try things, we iterate, we learn, and we optimize — over and over and over.

What brought you to CIC?

I came to CIC through my good friend, Stas Gayshan. I first met Stas through his work at Space With A Soul — a coworking space that was very friendly to budding nonprofits. The museum was growing back in 2011 and we needed a real place to work that wasn’t my living room. I met Stas, heard his vision for Space With A Soul and I was hooked. We worked there for a few years until the team outgrew our space. Between then and now we’ve bounced between a few spaces and never quite captured that same innovative spirit and community that we had when we worked in Stas’ space. Recently Stas gave me a tour of CIC Boston and I remember thinking, wow, this has all the love, community, and resources that a growing nonprofit like Design Museum Boston needs. I was hooked again!

What do you like about CIC and how do you think being in a space like ours impacts you?

I am so impressed with the CIC team’s ability to develop workspaces with a detailed approach that takes into account many different working styles. It’s clear to me that the CIC team cares deeply about the people that work here, and they’re constantly iterating and trying new things to constantly improve. The resources and spaces are top notch and I love the community elements. Being surrounded by other crazy entrepreneurs helps me feel like less of a crazy entrepreneur and more like a strategic entrepreneur.

Tell us a fun fact about yourselves!

When Derek and I first developed our vision for the museum — we were in a meeting at MassArt, where we had ordered pizza to eat while we brainstormed. We drew our vision for the museum on the back of the pizza box — and I still have it! I really need to frame it and hang it in the office — someday!