Performance Reviews for Freelance Designers

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Every year, most of the office let’s out a collective groan when they get the e-mail asking them to start filling out employee reviews. When I started freelancing, it was one of those office rituals I was happy not to have to participate in anymore. But, now that some time has passed, I can now see it as a valuable tool that everyone needs to do at least once a year (even when you don’t have HR or a boss making you do it).

Before I started my evaluation process, I had to figure out how to actually evaluate my freelance in a meaningful and beneficial way. I mean, how do you evaluate your performance when you work for yourself? After all, you don’t answer to a manager or boss, you are the boss! So, how do you get an objective opinion to weed out some of your best traits and areas of improvement? I wanted to go ahead and do a self-evaluation this year, so I put together a quick list of tips to describe the process I used to put together a Performance Review Process for Freelance Designers. So, without further ado, here is the process I used:

Performance Review Process for Freelance Designers

1. Evaluate your Metrics (Part 1 – Income):

I used to work for an advertising agency that managed hundreds of websites. One of the easiest ways we could tell if a site was performing well was to check the site’s traffic. While it didn’t always give us a clear picture, seeing the traffic over a few months or a year, gave us an indication of what sort of trend we were dealing with. As a freelancer, the first trend we should evaluate is income. Just like websites, income for freelancers usually have seasons where they are higher for certain months and lower for others. So, the best way to evaluate performance is over a long period of time, like a monthly income this year vs. last year. If you aren’t sure when your “season” is, this will help identify one and also help in identifying any income trends that you have.

2. Evaluate your Metrics (Part 2 – Projects):

While a major metric will help you identify trends and seasons, it is always best to also evaluate with a secondary metric. In the case of websites, our secondary metric usually included user engagement. For a freelance designer, I think the most important secondary evaluation would be the number of projects (done monthly). If you already have completed your income evaluation, this will be very handy to evaluate your ROI (return on investment). For example, let’s say you did 15 projects in February for a total profit of $5600 and then did 6 projects in June for $5500. In this example you made about the same amount of income (so according to your income metric, these months were both similar) but the # of projects was significantly different. This secondary metric will help you identify what is most profitable for you as a freelancer in terms of both earnings and time.

3. Evaluate your Feedback:

If you don’t already archive your feedback from clients, start now (think feedback reviews). While you may not always get feedback that is useful for self-evaluation, I think the most important factor is how the feedback was handled. From initial feedback to completion, were you able to keep the communication clear and move easily to an end result everyone was happy with? If there was a bump in the road, how did you handle it?

We all have had “Clients from Hell” (pardon the reference), but the important part for evaluating ourselves as freelancers is how we handle the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some clients will always tell you they love your work, others won’t. Know who your good clients are and treat them with preference (because good clients really are hard to find). The so-so clients, try and make them into good clients. The bad clients, identify the “hang-ups” and see if there is potential to move them up into the good category with a little more communication or work. The ugly clients, know when to pull the plug!  Your time is valuable so don’t waste it on clients who don’t value your work enough to pay you what is fair or are insulting you, they are not worth it. Your ability to handle these situations is a great way to personally evaluate your client service skills as a freelancer and your ability to grow your business professionally.

4. Evaluate your Skills:

As a designer, the most important part of the job is how well you push pixels and execute your designs. First, if you don’t already know, identify your style strengths. Most of us know that we are good at one type of style and not so good at another. This is not a bad thing, know your style and be a rockstar at it!

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:  

⁃    Do you have a style identified and were you able to improve it over the last year?
⁃    Can you execute your style for a design project well on a short time frame?
⁃    Do you know all the short-cuts you need for design actions you use a majority of the time?
⁃    Do you know your essential design programs & style well enough to teach a class?
⁃    Also ask yourself, did you improve your skills by getting peer reviews, taking classes, learning short-cuts, and practicing new skills on personal projects?

Doing what you do, as well as you can, is essential. I think designers are always trying to do it all, especially freelance designers, and we get caught up in learning new and different styles and techniques rather than focusing on what makes our designs great. But, knowing your style well sets you apart (and at the end of the day, it is what brings home the bacon).

5. Evaluate your Business Practices:

As a freelancer, you are basically running your own business, so knowing and executing good business practices is another part of the job. Just like evaluating feedback and skills, evaluating how well you manage the timelines, marketing, and accounting/billing of your freelance work will help you understand how well you are performing.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

⁃    Do you manage your time effectively and keep deadlines?
⁃    Do you send accurate and timely invoices?
⁃    Do you have a marketing plan and do you actively pursue it?
⁃    Do you keep track of your billing and is the method you use working well?
⁃    Do you have signed contracts or agreements with clients?
⁃    Do you keep your portfolio updated and relevant?

I think a lot of freelance designers do not focus on or like this part of the job, but being really good at keeping organized and professional in your business practices speaks all the more to your abilities as a freelance designer. So, it is good to look back and make sure you are performing these aspects well.

6. Set your Goals:

Now that you have looked at a few metrics to evaluate your performance, hopefully you have identified a few of your strengths and areas for improvement. In business school, the first thing they always taught us about goal setting was to make sure the goals we set were SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely). For freelance designers, I would add that they need to be update-able, meaning that you can make an amendment to extend a deadline or change some criteria to a certain goal based on your changing client and design demands (because, let’s face it, freelance design can be pretty unpredictable sometimes!). So, try and set some SMART-U goals for the next year. Stick with 2-3 goals to start with and build on them as your needs change this year.

7. Identify your Achievements:

In the freelance design world, sometimes just getting a design done and getting paid for it is reward enough. But recognizing when you really knocked it out of the park or reached a stretch goal is also really important and you should take the time to reward yourself. As a freelancer, there is no one to give you a pat on the back or a congratulatory lunch when you do really well on the job, so often times, we just don’t do it. So, make evaluation time a time to recognize when you have done really great work and take that opportunity to tell yourself, “Job well done!” (and hey, go out for a treat! You deserve it!).