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Sam Aquillano of Design Museum: “Have a topic you’re passionate about and won’t get sick of talking about.”

Have a topic you’re passionate about and won’t get sick of talking about. This is especially important if you’re going to do be podcasting at any high frequency. Make sure you like what you’re talking about because you’re going to be talking about it perhaps weekly! I love design with every fiber of my being […]

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Have a topic you’re passionate about and won’t get sick of talking about. This is especially important if you’re going to do be podcasting at any high frequency. Make sure you like what you’re talking about because you’re going to be talking about it perhaps weekly! I love design with every fiber of my being and could talk about it nonstop, and I love learning more about it and different people’s approaches and ideas — so I’ve certainly found my podcast topic.


As part of my series of interviews about “5 things you need to know to create a very successful podcast”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Aquillano of the Design Museum Everywhere.

Sam Aquillano is the Founder and Executive Director of Design Museum Everywhere, an online, nomadic museum with the mission to bring the transformative power of design everywhere. Design is everywhere, so the museum has no permanent address — instead, Sam and his team turn the museum inside out, making it accessible to all across many platforms and locations. Sam hosts one of the top 50-rated design podcasts: Design is Everywhere, a weekly podcast on the impact of design in our lives. In addition to being named one of Fatherly’s 100 Coolest Dads in America and Bostlnno’s 50 on Fire, Sam also frequently speaks at Harvard, MIT, TEDx.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit of your “personal backstory? What is your background and what eventually brought you to this particular career path?

Even before I knew there was a word for it, I knew I wanted to design things and bring new ideas to life. As a kid and teen, I was constantly drawing and building, even starting little businesses to monetize my ideas. I learned about design as a field and career right before applying to college, and I’m so grateful for that — design is everything I wanted to do and more. I graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in Industrial Design and spent the first part of my career at Bose designing speakers and consumer electronics, and I absolutely loved it. I got to work with really smart people and bring some really cool products to market, it was a dream come true. As much as I loved being a product designer, there were other things I enjoyed, namely community and education. I got into teaching as an adjunct professor at night for two local colleges, and I become the local chair of a national professional organization for industrial designers. I was doing a lot, I even went to grad school to get my MBA. It bothered me that I was surrounded by designers and no one was really talking to the general public about the impact of design in our lives. Long story short, I started Design Museum Everywhere, a new kind of museum with a mission to bring the transformative power of design everywhere.

Can you share a story about the most interesting thing that has happened to you since you started podcasting?

I think the reach of our podcast has changed the game for us. Prior to launching our podcast, our community was really focused on two cities, Boston, MA and Portland, OR. Boston was where I started the museum and then an amazing opportunity presented itself to grow to a second city in Portland. But the podcast is opening us up to a global community, to the point where my team and I are having conversations with folks around the world, elevating our brand and sharing our mission so much more broadly. What’s equally interesting to me is, even folks living/working slightly outside our two main metro areas started to get in touch, saying, “I’ve always loved the work you do, but don’t make it into the city very much, the podcast allows me to feel engaged with the museum.” So even folks closer to home for us are feeling a connection to the Design Museum, I love that!

Can you share a story about the biggest or funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaways you learned from that?

The biggest mistake in our early episodes was probably me inserting myself too much into the show. Not inserting my personality too much, but me trying to be seen/heard as an expert, rather than highlighting the expertise of our guests. No one wants to hear from me that much every week, and I may be a design expert, but I’m not a design expert in everything — it just wasn’t realistic. Luckily I have great people around me to give constructive feedback and we quickly adjusted. My personality is there, and now so is my curiosity — now I’m the proxy for the listener.

How long have you been podcasting and how many shows have you aired?

It has been a solid 9 months, and we’ve aired 34 episodes.

What are the main takeaways, lessons, or messages that you want your listeners to walk away with after listening to your show?

I’d like them to better understand how design works, how it connects to every single thing in our lives, and leave thinking differently about how the world around them is shaped by design.

In your opinion what makes your podcast binge-listenable? What do you think makes your podcast unique from the others in your category? What do you think is special about you as a host, your guests, or your content?

Our content is extremely accessible, we work hard to make our show listenable and enjoyable by, yes, designers, but also someone who is simply interested in design. It’s a fine balance but I think we strike it well. While our shows might be timely for the moment, we also curate and design them to be evergreen, so you can listen to old episodes and they’re still interesting. Lastly, we have a unique format — many shows have a host and a guest. We have a host, me, a new guest co-host each week, and a special guest interview. So the first segment I interview the guest co-host at a high level to help build a base of understanding for our listener on whatever our topic is, then the guest co-host and I go deeper into it by interviewing our special guest as a big group discussion. It’s undoubtedly harder to schedule episodes and to produce, but doing this gets more voices in the show and keeps things really interesting week to week.

Doing something on a consistent basis is not easy. Podcasting every work-day, or even every week can be monotonous. What would you recommend to others about how to maintain discipline and consistency? What would you recommend to others about how to avoid burnout?

Figure out your workstreams, i.e. thinking of episode ideas, reaching out to guests, recording, editing, etc., and make sure you’re tracking all of them consistently. It’s easy to get deep into editing and marketing and then forget to book your next guests. I recommend what we did, we recorded a lot in the first few weeks, sometimes 3 episodes a week, just to get ahead of the game and not feel like we were behind. We stocked up a bunch of content that then we edited and released over time. This gave us a buffer to get into a nice rhythm of recording once or twice a week, and we were able to make very detailed schedules for each episode, so we know what needs to happen when. This buffer also allows us to be a bit more ambitious with our guest outreach — some folks say no, or the dates don’t work, or folks do cancel sometimes, but with our buffer, that’s fine, we have time to pivot.

What resources do you get your inspiration for materials from?

I know social media is getting a hard look these days — and there are so many terrible things about it… but I still love it and get a lot of information and inspiration by connecting with a lot of people and organizations on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. I’m a heavy user of the bookmark tweet and save post functionality. I also take a lot of cues from our Board, Council, and Staff — we have a great community of thought leaders as well that are engaged across the Design Museum’s impact areas.

Ok fantastic. Let’s now shift to the main questions of our discussion. Is there someone in the podcasting world who you think is a great model for how to run a really fantastic podcast?

I’m obsessed with the Slate Political Gabfest.

What are the ingredients that make that podcast so successful? If you could break that down into a blueprint, what would that blueprint look like?

Their approach really inspired me when I was developing the format of our show. They have three regular co-hosts that talk about political topics, and they lead into a guest interview. Then they have Cocktail Chatter, their weekly bit at the end of each show. That was the inspiration for our show’s Weekly Dose of Good Design segment at the end of each episode.

You are a very successful podcaster yourself. Can you share with our readers the five things you need to know to create an extremely successful podcast? (Please share a story or example for each, if you can.)

1. Have a topic you’re passionate about and won’t get sick of talking about. This is especially important if you’re going to do be podcasting at any high frequency. Make sure you like what you’re talking about because you’re going to be talking about it perhaps weekly! I love design with every fiber of my being and could talk about it nonstop, and I love learning more about it and different people’s approaches and ideas — so I’ve certainly found my podcast topic.

2. Create templates for everything, guest outreach, scripts, follow-up, marketing content. There is a lot of work to produce each individual episode. One thing we did early on, thanks to Ryan Pflaum on our team, was to create templates and scripts that we could use over and over, and we created a rough production process, that yes we’ve refined over time, but it’s still pretty much the same as our first month of podcasting. Even creating a checklist that can be applied to each episode, and just copying and pasting it over and over again so you don’t forget anything.

3. Focus on audio quality. All the early research we did said audio quality is key. So we invested in some equipment for ourselves, but more importantly, we ship a little podcasting kit to each guest for them to borrow for their episode, complete with a mic, headphones, instructions, and return shipping label. This makes our guest interviews sound like we’re all in a studio together, when in reality, we’re just on Zoom.

4. Don’t think too hard about editing. I have certainly gone down the rabbit-hole on editing an individual episode — taking out every “um” every “uh” and trying way too hard to shape the narrative. It’s not worth it. Go with your gut, trust your ears, and set a time for how long you will allow yourself to spend editing an episode. For me, the max is 4 hours. Otherwise, editing can consume your time!

5. You have to market your podcast. If you have a great podcast, but no one knows about it, do you even have a podcast? Make sure you’re dedicating some time to marketing your show — use social media, create an email newsletter, and of course, have a website. Have your guests help share their episode. We’ve done paid social ads, retargeting campaigns, and more, all to drive an audience, which, at the end of the day, is what you want for your show.

Can you share some insight from your experience about the best ways to: 1) book great guests; 2) increase listeners; 3) produce it in a professional way; 4) encourage engagement; 5) the best way to monetize it? (Please share a story or example for each, if you can.)

1. Book great guests: One piece of advice, create an advisory group for your podcast of folks related to different facets of your topic. That way you’ll have a sounding board for your ideas and they’ll feel connected to your show and can help make connections to great guests. I’ll also say, take big swings, put asks out there, if people say no, no big deal. Be clear in what you’re asking, be organized, and make it easy for them to engage. We don’t give questions in advance, but we do supply a high-level conversation outline. This way they can prep, but it also keeps things fresh.

2. Increase listeners: Work with your guests to market your show. We provide each guest (remember 2 per episode) with social media assets like images and sample posts, written in their voice, so it’s very easy for them to copy/paste.

3. Produce it in a professional way: Get some good equipment and do sound tests. As host, I record from my closet with a heavy blanket draped around me. We send equipment to each guest prior to their interview and coach them on how to optimize for sound quality. We then, of course, run filters on all the audio in Adobe Audition to make it all sound even clearer.

4. Encourage engagement: Don’t have the podcast be the only touchpoint — build a community around your show with social media handles, a website, a Discord server, an email newsletter, you name it. The more touchpoints you can handle and grow in parallel the better. And give your listeners things to do! Submit ideas for episodes, share recommendations, etc., and then highlight them on the air.

5. The best way to monetize it: Advertising is always great, but it’s a little less often than I would like. As a museum, we have a membership program, which I think could be applied to any podcast. People could become members of our program and get certain benefits. The other idea this relates to is crowdfunding your show or crowdfunding each season, on say Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

For someone looking to start their own podcast, which equipment would you recommend that they start with?

We didn’t go for the most expensive stuff, but what we have works. I use an M-Audio Uber Mic, and some low-end audio-technica headphones. We use our MacBooks with either Quicktime or Zencaster to record. And we use Adobe Audition to edit.

Ok. We are almost done. 🙂 Because of your position and work, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Part of my mission and the mission of the Design Museum is to infuse more racial and gender equity into the design world. Design is a very white-male-dominated industry, yet we design for the entire world. Diverse voices and ideas will improve the design product and business outcomes, while also creating better solutions for a wider range of people. This means elevating BIPOC talent and shifting our organizations to be better spaces for diverse thought and community.

How can our readers follow you online?

Me: Twitter and Instagram: @samaquillano, I’m also on LinkedIn and Facebook.

Design Museum: Twitter @design_museum, Instagram @designmuseumeverywhere, and we’re also on LinkedIn and Facebook as well.

Design is Everywhere Podcast: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and iHeart Radio

Thank you so much for sharing your time and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.


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