We recently interviewed freelance rookies and now we want to talk to some freelance veterans. People who have been in the business for a while have learned some valuable lessons. We want to mine those lessons and share with the WordPress freelancer community.
Today we talk with designer, brand strategist, and teacher Dana James Mwangi. She’s the founder of Cheers Creative, a creative agency that builds brand visuals and websites for creative professionals, industry leaders, and art platforms. She’s been featured by Forbes and Essence, as well as a host of podcasts.
“It doesn’t matter how great a website looks or how many bells and whistles it has. If the site’s messaging isn’t clear or telling a great story then it still won’t work as well.”
-Dana James Mwangi
We talked with Dana about sharing the right message, setting up systems, and always learning.
How has your work changed over the years? What’s changed in your approach or your business since you started?
I spent a lot of years learning web design and learning WordPress. In those early years, my number one goal was to make websites that looked amazing. Today this is still my goal, but my focus has grown to include making sure a site’s messaging is just as good as its visuals. Today’s digital space is congested and loud like the traffic on a six-lane street. In knowing that, the main question I now ask myself before I start a web project is “How can I make the noise from the digital traffic quiet down when a user visits this particular website? How can I make an intimate user experience that’s like a relief from all of that noise?”
I would say that the bulk of my time now is spent helping my clients craft the perfect message on their website for their audience. That’s where the magic happens. Have you ever seen an episode of Dancing with the Stars, the television series where celebrities/personalities are paired with expert dancers and compete to win a multi-episode dance competition? Sometimes either the celebrity is a great dancer or may not have a lot of dance talent. In the latter case, it doesn’t matter how seasoned the celebrity’s dancing partner is. If the celebrity doesn’t have fluid moves, then the performance can’t be saved. In my mind, that’s the same dance between good website visuals and content. It doesn’t matter how great a website looks or how many bells and whistles it has. If the site’s messaging isn’t clear or telling a great story then it still won’t work as well. I believe this shift in thinking is what has helped me transition into being valued as a website consultant who puts strategy first.
I spent so many years learning the tech and design principles behind making a website work. Now that I have that foundation (and WordPress is what helped me get there), I am finding ways to make digital spaces feel more human through authentic storytelling and visuals that are less cluttered.
How did you break through and become successful? What strategies or approaches seemed to work the best?
My projects became more successful and seamless when I set up systems and workflows on how my company delivers websites from start to finish. Like a lot of designers first starting out, I used to walk around with my process in my head, and that was the only place where my process existed. This put me in a bind, and I wasn’t even in a position to receive help and delegate tasks because I had no “handbook.” Now I have automated almost all the steps on what happens from the time I get an email inquiry about my services to the date I publish a client’s project. My team and I now have more time to be creative because we’re not lost in a sea of unorganized client emails or performing redundant tasks.
Whenever I use a WordPress theme or plugin, I view the creators as my extended team. I get involved in their online forums and communities, and I share my work/insight. Back in 2014, I shared my work with one of the fastest selling WordPress themes on the market. This led to me becoming one of their endorsed partners and getting endless press. I had no idea all of those things would happen, but that experience taught me to share what I know and share my process even while things are imperfect.
In sharing my design process, I also learned how to share my personal “why.” In today’s digital space, people literally have millions of choices when deciding who to hire for web design. I realized quickly that doing great design work isn’t enough. I had to make connections with people and talk about why I became a web designer in the first place. Storytelling is the number one tool that increased awareness of my company. I talk about my “why” and my journey in going from print design to web design every chance I get.
What mistakes have you made over the years that you’ve learned from?
In the early years, underpricing was one of my biggest mistakes. When you underprice, you can’t invest in the best tools and the best people to get a project done and you can’t offer great value.
While you are a veteran, there are always areas where we can learn and grow. Where do you think you need to improve?
It’s hard for me to embrace the term “veteran” when it comes to WordPress because it and the experience on the web keeps evolving. I remember when website responsiveness was an “option.” Now it’s necessary if you want website users to see your content just as you intended on a mobile device. A couple of years from now it may be the standard for WordPress websites to incorporate virtual reality experiences or standard for a website’s text and images to completely change based on a viewer’s demographic. As with any significant change, I’ll be rolling up my sleeves again and excited to learn something new. I know now to embrace change early.