"Designers have kind of been living in the Dark Ages," says Kelly Sutton, the founder of LayerVault. In October of 2011, his company released a Mac application that brought real version control (think Git) to tools like Photoshop, giving graphic designers the same benefits that software designers have had for decades. A year and a half later, LayerVault is taking its next big step, enabling anyone to sign up for a free 1GB account without a credit card. If you work with Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, or any of the other apps whose file types LayerVault supports, it’s probably a good idea to think about backing up your work to the cloud.
The implementation is a lot like Dropbox
The tool is meant to appeal to professional designers, but there's something here for consumers and hobbyists, too. First, it’s a cloud backup of all the image and design projects you work on. The implementation is a lot like Dropbox: a folder on your machine houses all of your projects and it syncs with the cloud and any other Macs you have the software installed on. (Windows support is coming "eventually.") Every time you save changes to a file, the app creates a new version of it. All of those versions are available online, where you can revert to older ideas if you change your mind, and where your collaborators (or clients) can inspect and comment on your work.
The second benefit is a little less tangible, but a little more intriguing: all free accounts will be limited to public projects. That means all free users will be able to download, fork, and dig around inside each others' work. The storage limit for those accounts is 1GB, which, judging from the few PhotoShop, Sketch, and OmniGraffle files I have on my computer, would take me years to fill up. Your mileage may vary.
LayerVault supports 20 file formats, but sadly not Acorn or Pixelmator
Of course, there are problems, too. When I first started looking at LayerVault I was excited to download the iOS companion app, imagining myself pulling out clever Photoshops to show people, or flipping through old projects on the train. Unfortunately, the app is severely hamstrung right now, with functionality limited to just viewing the current file that you're looking at in the web client. That means if you’re away from your computer, you need to log into LayerVault and select a file in your phone's browser before you can view it inside the dedicated app. While designers might need the pixel-perfect view of a file to show a client, for consumers, the mobile apps are bordering on useless. That said, they are free, and ought to improve over time. One final complaint: LayerVault supports 20 file formats, but sadly not Acorn or Pixelmator.
Free accounts aside, LayerVault is also a money-making operation. If you run out of space, or if you’re a professional designer that needs privacy, you can get unlimited storage for $19.99, a price that's dropped 20 percent from the company’s current rate. Arguably the service now offers more value to heavy users than competitors like Timeline and Pixelapse. Still, the price struck me as high compared to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, which, at $49.99 a month, includes a subscription to all of Adobe’s pro apps. For companies that already shelled out for boxed copies of Creative Suite applications, though, something offering similar back-end functions to what Adobe is providing for less than half the price could be an attractive offer.
"What are Adobe's blind spots? What can we do better?"
It’s an interesting time in the design app space. The small companies behind products like Sketch are nipping at Adobe’s heels with competent, thoughtfully designed apps for the price of a single month of its professional service. "Adobe isn’t going anywhere for a while," says Sutton. "What I think the smart companies are doing is saying ‘What are Adobe’s blind spots? What can we do better?’" LayerVault might not be competing head to head with Creative Cloud, but as Adobe leaves the standalone software business in favor of a subscription model, it’s opening up avenues for others to jump in and provide some value. For the low price of free, LayerVault is clearly offering an intriguing proposition.