GridIron’s Flow 2.0.2 Essentials is the greatest free utility for creative professionals ever—and the paid versions, which provide additional functionality to the core application for a monthly subscription fee—are even better.
First the basics: Flow 2 is a systemwide project management tool that functions as a workflow tracker, project manager, and revision keeper. Think of it as a beefed-up Spotlight focused specifically on the challenges facing creative pros. It tracks every file your project team creates, updates, moves, exports, or places into another document, and it can show you the relationships between them. It also tracks time spent on projects, provides unique tools for collaboration, and lets you roll back a document to any previously saved version. While the previous version of Flow could track a single user on one workstation, this upgrade tracks all the members of a workgroup, no matter where they are in the world.
Even if you don’t pay for Flow’s Premium Services (Versions, Time Manager, and Overflow) the features in the free Flow Essentials are unique and valuable. For example, here’s an impossible challenge that every creative professional encounters regularly: “I know I used this graphic (or font or color) in some documents, but I don’t remember which ones.” Flow lets you find every document that uses a particular asset—whether it’s a placed graphic, text, spot color, or font.
In addition, Flow keeps track of every file you export from a document—PDFs, JPEGs, TIFFs, presentations, movies, audio files, and anything else that can be exported. Astonishingly, Flow can then show you the original files that were used to export that PDF, and the files that were placed inside those files—including movies, sounds, animations, and so forth. It even tracks selections of Photoshop images that are copied and pasted into other Photoshop images.
Flow works with every common creative app, including Adobe’s Creative Suite, QuarkXPress, Microsoft Office, video and sound editing applications from Adobe and Apple, 3D apps, text files, and any other file you choose to associate with a project. Helpfully, Flow can show you a large preview of almost any file, even if you don’t have the originating application. It’s even cross-platform for Mac and Windows.
To reduce the stress of having to switch back and forth between your Adobe Creative Suite application and the Flow window (which is rather sizable), a “mini Flow” runs inside every Creative Suite application as a panel. To open it, choose Window->Extensions->Gridiron Flow. Mini Flow shows the most important details of any document you select, such as thumbnails, layers, and links.
For some users, Flow’s killer feature is Version Control—a $10-a-month add-on module that gives users the ability to recover older versions of documents that have been saved over. Flow keeps a copy of every file you save, and you can control the maximum size of files it saves and the total disk space allotted for all of your versions.
For other users, the most important feature is time tracking—the free version tracks the time spent on each piece of the project. But to see, edit, or export that data, there is the Time Manager module that also costs $10 per month.
Flow 2 has two views: a File Map to see the relationships between your files and a Project Map to see how your team members relate to those files. It’s quite impressive: you can share projects with other team members across the Internet, see which members are online, send them messages, and see all communications between members. When you share a file with others, a copy of it gets uploaded to GridIron’s secure servers (called Overflow, another $10-per-month add-on) so that all team members have access to it. You can attach notes to files and even set up Watched folders that automatically synchronize files among members. Adding a new member to your project team is as simple as inviting them from within Flow—the invitation provides a link to download and install Flow.
The free Flow Essentials version gives you 4GB of OverFlow storage space plus collaboration features, and it tracks time, but doesn’t let you see or edit the time-tracking data. Additional features such as Version Control, Time Management reports, and increased OverFlow online storage are unlocked by purchasing Premium Services at $10 each per month or $20 per month for all three. An Enterprise version lets you see how everyone is using their time. Yearly discounts and volume pricing are available.
Version 1 of Flow, which cost $299, included most of the features of Flow 2 with its Premium Services. However, version 2 adds support for tracking multiple users on one computer, sharing projects across the Internet rather than only on a local server, and powerful workgroup communication features. If you purchased version 1, it will run indefinitely, but is not compatible with version 2. If you upgrade, you’ll be starting over with the new pricing system.
Macworld’s buying advice
The developers of Flow have done the right thing by releasing the first version with features they believed designers would use, and then expanding the feature set and updating the pricing structure in version 2 to fit the needs of their early adopters. Because of its ability to recover older versions of documents, track all exported files, and find assets inside documents, every creative person would benefit by using Flow 2.0.2. For those who work in teams, the time tracking and live collaboration features are easy to use and invaluable.
[Jay J. Nelson is the editor and publisher of Design Tools Monthly, an executive summary of graphic design news.]