Working Woman : Dana James Mwangi of Cheers Creative
We’re doing work we love, work that inspires us, and we’re also pursuing our passions and making them priorities. In our latest Working Woman series, I chatted with longtime friend and creative Dana James Mwangi about her life, work, motherhood . Dana James Mwangi is a wife, mom, artist, entrepreneur, speaker, and owner of Cheers Creative. Let’s get to know Dana more and what drives her as a working woman.
+DO YOU HAVE ANY UNEXPECTED SOURCES OF FINANCIAL INSPIRATION, IF SO WHAT ARE THEY?
Believe it or not, inspiration usually hits me when my mind is kind of “turned off” or just “waking up.” So sometimes when I’m waking up from a nap, walking or showering, an idea that I never thought of before for a project may hit me like a ton of bricks.
I also get design inspiration when I watch cartoons and movies with my kids. It’s funny how a small visual reference I’ve seen from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Coco may end up in a website I’m designing for a non-profit or a creative professional.
+WHAT IS ONE QUESTION YOU WISH PEOPLE ASKED YOU MORE OF?
The number one question people ask me is “How do you balance it all?” Truthfully, there is no way I can “balance” or give equal time to being a wife, mother, business owner, creative professional and so many other things. In one day I may spend 80% of my time away from my family to work on my project. Another day I may not touch work at all and spend that whole day with my children. If I look at my schedule from the lens of “balancing it all,” I’m always going to feel like I am losing. I had to learn the hard way that this is not a healthy way to view my time. I wish that people would ask (1) how to create a work/life “path” that works for specifically them, and more importantly (2) how to be okay with choosing that path even when people don’t understand it.
+ WHAT ARE 5 OF YOUR DAILY HABITS?
1.I write five things that I am grateful for in my gratitude journal. I write about everything from the sunlight coming through my windows, to landing a great project.
2. I take a few minutes to refine and print out my daily schedule. I have tons of calendar apps on my devices but there’s something satisfying about printing my schedule out, seeing a list of what I have to do, physically holding it in my hands, and physically crossing tasks out that relieves anxiety.
3. I listen to a podcast or an audio on business for at least 30 minutes a day. This usually happens when I’m in my car.
4. I read news feeds to get the latest updates on major brands that are expanding, merging, or closing. I end up sharing a lot of this information in my branding workshops for entrepreneurs so that I can show them branding principles in action.
5. I create what I call “sanctuary” around my home in the mornings and in the evenings. The process is the same... I burn my sage, get my oil diffuser going with tea tree oil, put on my Spotify jazz or instrumental hip hop mix, and drink some water. I want my husband, children and myself to ease into the day and into the night.
HOW DO YOU THINK WORKING IN A CREATIVE INDUSTRY CONTRIBUTES TO SOME OF THE WORLD’S BIGGER CONVERSATIONS AND WHAT ROLE IS YOUR WORK PLAYING IN THIS SHIFT IN THINKING?
Because I am a creative person, I am continually thinking of ways to take social problems and solve them through clean design and clearer presentation of information. This is what my Memphis creative peers and I talk about whenever we get together.
I take pride in the fact that a lot of the projects I work on at Cheers Creative help solve issues in historically marginalized communities. About 10 years ago I started working with Harlem’s Fashion Row, an organization that is actively leveling the playing field in fashion for designers of color. I saw how our brand and web design helped increase HFR’s visibility and impact as they garnered over $2 million in sponsorships, and most recently, co-designed LeBron James’ first women's basketball sneaker.
I got the opportunity to redesign the website for Just City, a social justice organization that helps people who have served time in jail move forward with a clean slate. They successfully lowered the record expungement rate in Tennessee, which was the third highest expungement fee in the country at one point. This means that people who’ve had contact with the criminal justice system and who have served their time no longer have a $400 fee standing in the way of them applying for housing and jobs. Through a clean presentation of information on their website, we got more people to see why an organization like Just City is needed.
IF YOU COULD REBRAND OR WORK WITH 3 PEOPLE WHO WOULD THEY BE, AND WHY?
I see a lot of amazingly dope illustrators online like Andrea Pippins. She depicts Black women in the most colorful and whimsical ways. I adore her work and I would love to collaborate on something that features her illustrations.
I would love to work with Michelle Obama on ANYTHING. She embodies a lot of the things I strive to be: bold, gracious, and just downright fierce.
I make a habit out of telling creatives how great they are and sometimes I will try to make a collaboration happen. One day I was browsing online and learned about the work of Tré Seals, a Black typographer who handmakes fonts inspired by moments in Black History. I loved his work so much that I found a project where I could best showcase his fonts. My company recently built the website and promo for Union, a musical about Memphis sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968. We used one of Tre’s handmade fonts called “Martin” throughout the project, and it was a match made in heaven.
HOW WOULD YOU ADVISE WOMEN WHO ARE MAKERS, CREATIVE/FASHION PROFESSIONALS OR PEOPLE, IN GENERAL, TO LEAVE IN AN IMPRINT IN THE DIGITAL WORLD JUST BY DOING WHAT THEY LOVE?
I think the journey to making a living out of doing what you truly love to do starts with internalizing this one thought:
“You are enough.”
When you realize that, you will also see that there is room for you in ANY place where you decide to be. You will make even more room for yourself in today’s digital space by telling your story.
HOW DOES YOUR CURRENT WORK INFLUENCE YOUR PERSONAL STYLE?
I will tell you this...I am not married to any color. I don't have a favorite color, and I think that comes from years of graphic design school and working in branding and web. I just love when the use of a color is executed well. I remember when articles came out about the “world’s ugliest color,” which is a dark yellowish brown. I just remember thinking “folks think this color is ugly but wait ‘til they see me wearing it in this wrap dress!” I gravitate towards garments that look like a bit of a challenge on the rack.
HOW DO YOU BALANCE MARRIAGE, MOTHERHOOD AND WORK?
While I don't believe you can have a “balance” between all the hats that you wear, I do think you can work to create harmony between all of the ways you have to show up in the world.
Having a family with growing children has forced me to work smarter. I only take on projects that are meaningful and worth my while. I work with clients who value their time and mine. So now, I may work on 10 to 15 high-end projects in a year instead of 30 or 40 smaller projects like I did in the early days. Working this way means I get to be more present with my husband and our kids.
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS A BRAND, DANA JAMES MWANGI GOING INTO THE FUTURE?
When I first started working for myself as a brand designer, I honestly didn’t see that far into the future. I kind of thought I was going to work at my computer all of the time, making graphics look pixel perfect. But entrepreneurship and telling my story has taken me on an unbelievable journey that has surpassed all of my dreams. It has all been an exercise in patience and confidence. Now I want to travel and tell people all over the world that they have what it takes to launch their thing and make an impact. I never thought in a million years that I would gravitate from teaching the importance of a great logo and visuals to convincing business owners that they give power to their logo. I'm telling people to step out, tell their story and take chances. That’s the work I want to do for the rest of my life.