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Visual Versioning: How a Demo of Gridiron's Flow Blew My Mind

gridiron-software-gridiron-software-flow-a-revolutionary-approach-to-content-management-1I forget things. I lose things. I’ve resigned myself to accept these facts at this stage of my life and am in constant search for tools and processes to help pick up the slack where my aging, overloaded brain leaves off. When I find a tool or application that helps to overcome my shortcomings, I have to admit I’m infused with new-found hope as well as childlike awe.

Those are the feelings I got when I first saw Gridiron Software‘s new product, Flow. The Mac version of the software was made available to download for free, as a public beta, yesterday.

The company calls Flow a “Visual Workflow Manager.” I call it a miracle. If you know me, I’m usually the Queen of Understatement so let me elaborate on this lofty claim.

In as concise a nutshell as I can muster, Flow follows a project’s workflow by tracking and mapping out the revisions a file has gone through during your work process. It manages your project files, how they’re related to each other, and where they’re located.

gridiron-software-gridiron-software-flow-a-revolutionary-approach-to-content-managementHow It Works

Say that you have a final document for a client. It’s a PDF file that includes particular fonts and several images. Drop that PDF file onto Flow, and the application maps out the assets and the iterations of those assets for you. Double-click on a previous revision of an asset, such as one of the images, and Flow finds it on your computer instantly. Flow will let you know if you are missing any of the fonts in a project file.

Flow doesn’t care what the names of the files are; it identifies them through an ID number so even if you can’t remember what you named a file, Flow will find it for you and map it.

If you make alterations to any asset within the workflow mapped out by Flow, it can add that iteration into your Workflow Map. The company calls this “Real-time Asset Tracking” and it happens behind the scenes even when Flow is not running.

Flow not only gives you a history of a file and its iterations but allows you to revert to any version as needed. They call this “Visual Versioning.” You can also perform a “Visual Search” to locate any file and to see a visual diagram of how it fits into the project you’re working on.

One challenge for any web worker sharing files on a project is to get all the right files, and particularly the correct versions of each file, to a team member or client. Flow offers what they refer to as “Foolproof Packaging” which means that Flow will automatically gather the correct versions of all the required files related to a project and package them together to send via email or to upload onto a shared workspace.

Flow is application-agnostic so can work with Illustrator files, Microsoft (s msft) Office files, fonts, PDFs and more. Also, your virtual team members don’t need to have Flow on their computers. Flow will still be able to identify the workflow when you get the files back. If they do have Flow, they see the exact same map that you saw before you sent them the files.

And If That Isn’t Enough, They Throw In…

Another challenge I’m finding in my web work is tracking the time spent on particular projects. Not everyone on the team – myself included – is diligent about marking time into our handy little Progress Notes in the 5pm project management space. Flow automatically records the time spent on each file involved in the workflow of a project so you can get a calculation of time taken creating assets for the project. I can then compare this calculated time to the manual entries by team members to check for discrepancies.

Another nice feature in Flow is the ability to analyze the impacts that client changes have on workflow and work processes. There’s a “ripple effect” as one change can affect multiple files. Flow helps you understand and better communicate the ramifications of changes to the workflow so you can manage client expectations and more accurately price out change requests.

One final feature that may just save some headaches: how many times do you have a number of versions of a file, think you know which one is the most current so start to trash some older versions? Flow will notify you when not to delete something, illustrate where that file is currently in use and show you what will be affected if you empty the trash.

Since Flow doesn’t rely on file names or even drive names, you could be using images from a number of different external drives, network drives or even SD cards. Flow can identify the drive or card that contains a “missing” file or image without you having to search manually or even guess at what you called that file or image in question.

When you first download Flow, you can have it map out all the assets on your computer by scanning your files to draw out their relationships. Old projects “pre-Flow” can still be more easily managed with the basic data Flow gathers.

Flow is currently free and the first version is for Mac but a Windows version is coming soon. You can purchase flow before May 1st for the promotional price of $249. After that, the price will be $299.

I don’t know about you, but even if Flow had half of its capabilities and just found lost files for me on my computer, I’d be grateful. The fact that it manages asset revisions throughout the life of a project, tracks time, and then illustrates it all on an easy-to-follow map just feels like a miracle to me.

How are you currently tracking the life of a project file and all multitude of assets and iterations?

13 Responses to “Visual Versioning: How a Demo of Gridiron's Flow Blew My Mind”

  1. One big advantage to SVN is that it makes it easy for multiple people to work on the same files, as long as everyone learns to properly commit and update their files. This also makes it easy to work from multiple locations as all you have to do is checkout/update the repository to get all your files. You also don’t need to worry about ever losing your files. If your computer dies, your files are still safe on the server.

    I’d love to use Flow as I do think it has a ton of great features, but I just can’t see replacing SVN with it, not in our environment. Is there any plan to integrate some sort of server based versioning system in the future? Does anyone know if it’s already possible to use Flow with an existing SVN setup?

  2. @Dave: In Flow 1.0 you can set up a map on a shared drive that will keep everyone up to date with what’s connected to a project and where it is, etc. Major workgroup enhancements coming in v2.0, from what I’m hearing from GridIron, but the shared map, combined with a live package that copies everything in a project to a predetermined folder as you add files to a project both go a long, long way to keeping stuff organized in a collaborative environment.

    Actually, Flow is so radically different from anything else out there it’s actually hard to know what to call it. As a diehard fan since I started working in the private beta last year, I can tell you that once you’ve used it for a while, it’s impossible to go back!

  3. I just wanted to correct a couple of the comments here. Flow is not Mac-only. The public beta is available on a range of platforms, including Mac OS X 10.5, Windows XP and Windows Vista (full system requirements are listed at

    Both the Windows and Mac versions are available as a public beta release now, with the full release coming very soon.

    Also, Flow does handle versioning, with collaborative functionality coming in the full release. There’s no functionality to merge two conflicting versions of the same file, but given that the majority of the file types Flow supports are binary files, you won’t find such a merge tool (one that works with binary files) in Subversion either.

  4. I just took a quick look at Flow’s website and I don’t see anything about team workflows. It seems to be a tool that is intended for use by an individual. Subversion is great for a team saving work in a central repository. It does versioning and has ways for managing conflicts. I don’t see any of that with flow. Also I didn’t see a windows version, which is means non mac users are left out in the cold…

  5. I just wanted to add a few notes on the Flow vs. Subversion question. SVN is a great tool for managing code (in fact, we use it internally to keep track of Flow’s code), and the “checkout-edit-commit” cycle is an (unfortunate) fact of life for software developers. We use it because it’s a very good tool for managing source code.

    But it’s also a pain. It has a steep learning curve, it requires frequent interaction with the repository, and it interrupts your workflow (not to mention the merge headaches mentioned above!). Flow was designed to minimize the headaches — it detects when you’ve saved a file and stores its own backup, it detects when you’ve pasted a logo from an Illustrator document into Photoshop and creates a relationship between those files. And, while you can pull visualizations of a file’s history from a Subversion repository, Subversion alone doesn’t really know anything about relationships _between_ files.

    Finally, yes, there is a Windows version; expect it soon. It was held up a bit longer than the Mac version, but it’s on its way — it just needs a bit more quality time with our testers. :D

  6. Subversion (SVN) and Flow both are versioning systems, but really that’s where the similarities end.

    SVN as mentioned before is aimed at (and best used with) non-binary files. When it comes to things like source code it works pretty well with enough learning, hacking, and hair pulling (merging comes to mind for both the new and seasoned SVN user).

    Flow (I haven’t used it yet, only seen videos and read documentation) really takes the idea of versioning to a completely new level (when it comes to the Adobe user). When you create a file in photoshop you don’t have to fire up explorer and add it to a new repository for that project.

    Each time you save that file in photoshop it will be committed as a version (without you ever having to actually fire up a command line and type out the commit command or use a SVN client such as tortisesvn).

    When you then go ahead and grab an illustrator file and drag it into your photoshop document as a smart object, flow will notice this and will then start tracking that illustrator file as well.

    On the flow interface you can see all the files that have went into making another file (fonts, smart objects, and just about everything else) in a visual manner.

    Compare this to subversion for example and each of these files would have to be added to the repo by hand, committed by hand, if you wanted to revert to an older version you would have to hope you placed great comments on the commits for each file to know what was changed (instead of simply looking at an image of the PSD or AI or whatever it may be).

    If you want to keep all your AI files over on a network drive that happens to be on the machine where you have a big wacom, and for some reason you like to do your photoshop work on another machine, that’s just fine. With SVN you would need to have them all within the same folder (to an extent of course).

    The list goes on and on :D

  7. Subversion doesn’t offer visual graphic mapping, no. At least, not to my knowledge. On thinking about it, it’s very coder-oriented, even if it does track revisions to all kinds of files.

    What do you mean by “visual graphic mapping,” btw? Is it just a big tree display?

  8. Ben – from what I know (which in this case may be limited), Subversion ( seems to be a great open source version tracker mostly used by coders. For a web worker like me who rarely delves into code anymore but has creative files coming out of my ears often with multiple assets (think posters, invitations, ads, web site mock ups, etc.), this seems much more intuitive/user friendly.

    I’ve had programmers mention Subversion to me before & must admit it wasn’t on my radar. Does Subversion provide visual graphic mapping as well?

  9. So…. how is Flow much different from a standard version control system like Subversion? From your description, I can only see two noticeable differences – that Flow tracks time spent, and that it will cost a lot of money.