I’m a Full-time Designer Who Tried the Freelance Track

Jacob Gambino—Design Director at The Muse—is one of those rare (and lucky) individuals who knew what he wanted to do with his career before he even went to college.

“Late in high school,” Gambino explains, “I sorted out that design, in some sense, would be the path I took. The internet was really in full swing in 1998, so I was exposed to all sorts of new creative venues—skate videos, online games, music, movies, everything.”

He earned a degree in new media publishing from the Rochester Institute of Technology and dove headfirst into the design field. And while he did do some print work at the beginning (Expert tip: Always spell check before you print something, especially if it’s a huge banner. Two years into his first full-time gig, Gambino accidentally misspelled the word ‘kaleidoscope’ on a client’s banner. He got a good “slap on the wrist” and never made that mistake again.) most of his work’s been digital—from making websites and mobile apps to creating online marketing materials for clients such as Blue Apron and Muhammad Ali.

But make no mistake—his career story hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. He’s been laid off before, and he’s definitely experienced some dry spells during the three years he was a freelancer. But he never stopped pursuing what he loves doing.

Read on to hear more about what it’s like to be a designer and how Gambino pushes through the setbacks.


Tell Us a Little Bit More About Your Role as Design Director

I collaborate with people across the product, marketing, and content teams to execute company design priorities, along with ensuring my team has enough information and support to be successful.

Our projects range from product launches to user testing to creating systems that address internal needs (marketing materials, sales decks, iconography, and so forth). I also work with our engineering team frequently, so having lots of QA and tech experience comes in handy.

But, I’m not strictly a manager. Actual design work is still 50% of my role. I love to roll up my sleeves and get lost in my favorite programs—Sketch, Photoshop, and Illustrator. Variety is the spice of life, so doing so many things keeps each month balanced and a bit unique.


What Helps You Get Through Frustrating Situations?

I draw a lot of motivation from the outdoors. I do my best thinking when I’m camping, chopping wood, building fires, and hiking. Afterward, I’m really clear-headed and feel driven to tackle the challenge I’m facing.

It sounds a bit corny, but when things get a bit crazy at my job, I just go into the woods for a few days. Most times, I escape the city on the weekends, but I’m also a big believer in “mental health days,” which is a concept my parents instilled in me from a young age. I still take about two to three mental health days each year and often turn to the outdoors when I do.




Why Did You Go From Freelancing to Working Full-time?

Right after graduation, I wanted to go the full-time route—college loans are scary, so I needed a reliable income to help with those. After finding some professional confidence and building up enough of a rainy day stash (about three months’ worth), I took some time off to travel and come back to a freelance career path.

It was great to be able to have that control over all the adventures I was taking, but in the end, I never wanted to run my own business in that way. Freelancing does require a fair amount of annoying business tasks (taxes, self-promotion, client management) that I didn’t want to sink lots of time into. Thinking about stability, time for a family, a clear separation of “work” and “not work” all made it easy to slide back into a full-time role.


What Advice Do You Have for Those Who Want to Follow in Your Footsteps?

Instant gratification is rare in this industry, and the best way to show people you mean business is to keep your head down, work hard, and prove you have what it takes. Great designs, presentations, experiences—they don’t require much to carry them because what you created communicates effectively enough.




By Alex Manna
Alex Manna Program Assistant | Pronouns: they/them/theirs