GridIron Flow review

GridIron Flow is an asset-management system, which doesn’t sound very exciting, but what’s fantastic about Flow is that it’s been designed for real people. It knows that project organisation is dull, that your file organisation is probably best described as experimental, and that you’re likely to be frequently working across multiple projects at once – often using the same files – which makes things extra messy.

Unlike most media-management tools, Flow doesn’t attempt to change you or force you to work a certain way – instead, it works around how you work, keeping track of everything, ready for when you need it. If you’ve ever found yourself scouring projects for elements that are ‘around here somewhere’, or you’ve inadvertently deleted files you need because tidying the desktop usually involves deleting everything on it – Flow is for you.

Flow knows your projects better than you do. It runs in the background, constantly monitoring the applications you use and identifying the elements of your projects and linking them together. The list of applications Flow knows and monitors is impressive for a 1.0 release, including the majority of the programs in CS3 and CS4 versions of Adobe’s Creative Suite, Apple’s Final Cut Studio 2, Microsoft Office, Cinema 4D and Nuke. The greatest omissions here are QuarkXPress, Acrobat Distiller, Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Maya – but GridIron says it’s working on adding more applications.

Once Flow knows which files are linked to which project, it can stop you from deleting them by accident. An on-screen widget called the Flow Dashboard will let you know if you’ve done this, and can quickly reclaim the file or files with the press of a button.

You can get Flow to scan one or more of your drives – or just specific folders – so it knows about all of your previous projects. Unlike with current projects, though, Flow can’t discover links to exported files such as PDFs from InDesign or web images from Photoshop, or identify elements copied from one document to another.

GridIron Flow’s easy-to-understand interface sets panels around a central Map flowchart that details your projects. The flowchart runs from left to right. Your project file sits in the centre with its constituent elements to the left and any exported files to the right. For any file in your Map, you can view a thumbnail or open it for an instant preview. You can scroll through the pages of a PDF, though not InDesign files. You can also have a look at its internal attributes – these aren’t traditional metadata, but data relevant to the type of file it is. You can see the names of layers within PSDs, fonts and colour swatches within InDesign and Illustrator files, compositions within After Effects projects, and so on.

All of this information is searchable through panels in both the main Flow application and the Flow Dashboard. So if you’re looking for a Photoshop composition but all you remember is that it had a layer called ‘Woman in Red’ in it or used the Plantin font, you can search for these.

Search smarter

Most of the time with Flow you won’t need to search, though. If, for example, you want to find a stock shot of a woman in a red dress that you comped into a PSD that you used in a brochure, you open the brochure in Flow and trace back to the original image. Flow remembers where that image was when you used it, even if it’s not accessible anymore – so can tell you what the name of the CD or external drive it was on so you can dig it out.

Moving around the Map is swift and easy. The flowcharts can get very large on complex projects, but they never get messy, due to the clear visual interface. This clean layout is especially important if you expand the ‘stubs’ below media files that show which other projects they’re connected to – say, to check where a logo is used before you change it.

You can bookmark Maps of current or regularly used projects to quickly access them – and share Maps with other Flow users on your network. With only a single licence, we couldn’t test this, but apparently it works without needing to be set up.

Another nifty feature is the ability to manually add other files to the Map – so you can tie in briefs, scripts, storyboards, and other project ephemera. This helps you avoid losing the files while you’re working, but is also useful if you want to use Flow’s Packages system (which works in a similar way to InDesign’s Package function) to bring all your elements together into a single folder.

The downside to creating Packages is that Flow doesn’t update the project file to the location of the packaged elements – so whoever opens it next will need to relink them – but it does bundle in information from two of Flow’s best features: Versions and Time Tracking.

Versions, as the name suggests, saves a new version of your project every time you save. This means that if you take a project in a wrong direction you can quickly return to a previous version of the project. The key point here is that this is done for you, but you can manage the process if you wish. You can set how many versions of each project to keep, view previews of these versions to help find the right one, save versions at important points at project development, and delete versions.

Time Tracking offers a simple way of building a timesheet of how long you’ve worked on a project, as Flow knows exactly how long you’ve been working on each of your files. You can export this information as a CSV file, ready for importing into an Excel spreadsheet, or into a full-scale project-management application, such as Sohnar Traffic or Streamtime. Whether you keep detailed notes of time spent or ‘estimate’ it at the end, Flow gives you accurate information instantly.

Alongside the Flow application and Dashboard, GridIron has created Flash Panels that run inside the CS4 versions of Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator and Flash. These display the basic Maps for the current project so you can refer to them without launching Flow, and give access to time tracking information and versions.

OUR VERDICT

GridIron Flow is incredibly useful, full of innovations and – unlike the original public beta – reliably and solidly stable. Our frustrations with it are largely related to wanting support for more applications – such as Mail to track parts of projects sent to clients. Flow won’t suit everyone but if you spend a lot of time on multi-faceted projects with lots of different versions and shared assets, it could make your life so much easier.

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