The Future of WordPress Themes 2008

Hey There! If you haven’t yet, make sure you check out The Future of WordPress Themes 2009 after you’re done reading 2008′s predictions. It’s a good read.

When I predicted the downfall of premium WordPress themes I immediately began to think of the future of WordPress theming in general. Where was it headed really? And if I really wanted to know, who should I ask? Well, if you want to know where WordPress themes are headed in the future, these are the kind of people you want to ask—and the people to watch. And wow, am I glad I asked.

Here are 11 people committed to thinking creatively about WordPress themes and what they mean. These are some of the people who will carry and lead WordPress theming into 3.0 and beyond. Some of these people will set the agenda for the future of WordPress themes. And this is what they think it will look like.

Robert Ellis

I think the future of WordPress themes will be a lot like the past. The vast majority of themes will still be garish mutations of Kubrick, but more cluttered, more pimped out with widgets, scripts and effects. There will still be premium themes that push the envelope in terms of built-in options and quality, but, the market will become saturated, setting off even more accusations of copying (as we’ve seen with magazine themes, though personally, I think most of them look like they were “inspired” by CNN). The competition will raise the bar for free themes. Fortunately, things like Sandbox and Blueprint will make it easier for hackers like me to be a bit tidier under the hood. Oh, and there will be a small, but thriving cadre of designers and would-be designers who will continue to experiment and create themes that don’t look like every other blog on the Net. These are the ones that I find most interesting (Derek Punsalan, for example).

Robert Ellis, the former Upstart Blogger, can be found at Futurosity, along with his most recent WordPress themes. While you’re there make sure you check out Futurosity Aperio Prototype.

Adam Freetly

I can’t really say much about the economics of premium WordPress themes, as I’ve never bought, sold, or seen stats on them. I will say the that the future of all “boxed”software, i.e., software that you buy a license of, rather than a support contract for, is on a downward trend. Selling a “boxed” design is even less likely to continue to be profitable. But that’s just hearsay.

Adam Freetly can be found at archGFX. One of his most recent themes, a CSS-only template for The Sandbox, blew me away the first time I saw it and I still think it’s great. Check out Promised Land.

Cal Coleman

My take on the future of WordPress themes. Well I think I have to start this out by disagreeing with ThemeShaper and everyone else that says that WordPress themes are mandatory GPL. I’d like to explain why I disagree and the reason for even bringing it up. The reason I bring it up is simple, if every theme released is considered GPL, that will have a huge impact on any theme business model. At the moment it seems like most people respect theme authors copyrights and licenses, which is a good thing in my opinion. The reason I disagree is because there is no GPL code in a CSS file and most themers know that without the CSS file, you ain’t got much. I’ve also said on a few other websites that (in my opinion, I’m not a lawyer) just because you release that CSS file alongside GPL files (the PHP files) doesn’t mean that the CSS file has GPL code. So from my viewpoint, themes are really released in two parts and under two licenses.

Finally onto my opinion on the future of WordPress themes. I think we’re going to see more theme clubs start to crop up in place of individuals selling themes. Theme buyers can get a lot more for their money with a theme club. ThemeShaper mentioned RocketTheme and they’ve been doing business for quite a while now. We’ve also seen WPDesigner.com’s new theme club and It’s only a matter of time before there are several clubs available. The good thing is there are a lot of WordPress users so I think there’s probably room for a few clubs. But what about those people who don’t want to join a club or have no interest in premium themes, the DIYers. I think there are a lot of users out there who like to style their site themselves. Their blog is an extension of themselves, they don’t want it to look like everyone elses. I think this is when things like our newly released themer kit can come in and fill some of the gaps. Especially once people start to use it and really understand what it is and what it can do. Overall I’m very optimistic about the future of themes and WordPress itself. It’s popularity continues to grow and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Cal Coleman is the author of The WP Themer Kit. You can find his WordPress themes at Themes by Cal.

Jeff Chandler

Personally, I believe the next trend will focus around Widgets. I think the poster child for the future of WordPress themes revolves around the Shifter Theme system. Widgets give power back to the end user. As a theme author, you no longer have to provide detailed instructions on how to hard code a plugin or widget into the theme. Just make it a widget area, and the user can drag and drop the content element into an area that seems appropriate. I also believe there will be a trend towards themes offering an admin page which contains settings that control various aspects of the theme.

Jeff, you may know him better as jeffro2pt0, knows his stuff. Besides his own blog you can find him thinking about WordPress themes on Weblog Tools Collection.

Armen Thomassian

Generally, I don’t like to make predictions, but for the sake of the conversation, I’ll throw out my thoughts. I think the future of WordPress Themes largely depends on future decisions made by Automattic. If they go ahead and announce a WordPress Themes Marketplace, you’ll find those who can create decent designs, and aren’t already making money from ‘Premium’ or custom made designs, will create their best for the Marketplace.

Therefore, in 12 months time, if this all goes ahead, I would have to say that the available quality of free WordPress themes will most likely go down; at least, the quantity will. Having said that, I imagine there will be a few who are making money, and will still release a freebie now and again. I plan to release a high quality WordPress theme at least bi-monthly at Alpha, so all is not lost ;)

With more and more people using WordPress to develop niche sites and using it to further their business, the importance of making yourself stand out will become a necessity. I don’t think this will make the free WordPress themes less popular, but as blogging grows as a medium, there will be a greater demand for custom work.

Armen Thomassian, blog designer, can be found at Alpha Blog Designs, and is the author of the download-for-charity Bedrock Grid theme.

Alister Cameron

We’re at the junction of a number of exciting developments.

Firstly, there are microformats. These continue to develop and challenge designers to take semantic markup (in general) more seriously. hFeed is pretty stable, and hRelease may make an entrance of sorts, and there will be many more…

Secondly, there is jQuery. It is the recently accepted JavaScript library for WordPress, which is something I have hoped to see happen for a long time. The challenge is now for both plugin authors to update their plugin code, which will usually mean leaner, cleaner JS code; and for themers to look more closely at AJAX, at DHTML client-side funkiness, etc. jQuery make a lot more stuff a lot easier to implement.

Thirdly, CSS3 will push its way into the spotlight more and more, challenging WordPress theme designers to push the boundaries in many more ways, and get creative.

Fourthly, the user-agent now matters a lot! The iPhone and cell/mobile phones have reached saturation level usage and it’s time for WordPress themers to look at ways to accommodate these different user agents. I am personally not excited about the .mobi TLD, preferring smart user-agent-specific content delivery. However in themes, this approach will require elegant conditional output code in templates, which is a new concept to most designers.

Fifthly, we all need to take language localization more seriously. And that doesn’t have to be any harder than faithfully using _e(), etc. I have always felt there is a huge business opportunity for someone to do blog post translation in a cheap yet “human” way. Machine translation won’t cut it, but the price of human translation needs to come down, while maintaining decent quality. If someone cracks this opportunity, themers will want to take advantage of this for themes.

Sixthly, there is community expectation. With every theme released, people want more. And they don’t want to pay much for it. So I think themes will need to become more focussed: the blog, the magazine, the newspaper, the tumblelog, the company webpage, etc. We’re seeing that happen already, but it will mature a great deal.

Finally, there are CSS frameworks and grid systems, which have the potential to achieve what I’ve at least attempted with Vanilla: a single theme with many layout options. Whether with the YUI grids, or Blueprint, or any other CSS framework, the goal is the same – to make a theme “flexible” for non-tech, non-designer users. I want and expect this aspect of theming to mature a great deal, one way or another.

There is more I could add, but I’m more interested to read what others have to say :)

Alister Cameron, The Blogologist, can be found, not surprisingly, at AlisterCameron.com. If you’re interested in Alister’s ideas about the future of WordPress themes make sure you check out Codename: Vanilla.

Justin Tadlock

The future of WordPress themes is definitely bound to be something pleasantly stunning. I’ve tried to raise the bar with customization and will continue doing so.

Ease of use will/should be one of the next big topics. As developers continue to add more and more features to razzle and dazzle perspective users, we need to also keep in mind that the average user doesn’t know what widgets, theme options, or custom fields are. They just want their site to look pretty.

We need to deliver.

My biggest concern is making sure users can actually use the stuff that I’m putting out there. If they can’t, then what’s the point? It’s easy as a developer to forget that what might seem like an insignificant thing to us could potentially turn a new user away from the WordPress community by making it too difficult. What it all comes down to is bringing new users into the community and keeping them.

I do hear some talk of moving into designs for specific niches, so theme developers could cater to particular users. I think this is a great idea, which could be a nice trend as we’ve seen with magazine-styled themes. Users want something that works for them before unwrapping the packaging.

Another thing I’ve read, and have tried moving toward with my Structure theme, is using widgets for everything. Widgets are easy to use and don’t have to be placed in a sidebar. Giving the user something they can change without touching a piece of code will be a powerful force behind some of the more complex themes.

I’m really interested in seeing where the paid theme market goes. Although I don’t participate in this part of the community, I see those developers as leaders in the WordPress field, and they continue to push the rest of us to come up with something just as good or better. Then, those of us on the other side push them to come up with innovative ideas.

Innovation, I suppose, should be my next point. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of different things that can be done with the system but there’s a lot of untouched potential. Integration with other services is definitely growing as we can now easily add video, audio, and all types of things to our blog. I’m not sure what the next trend or fad will be exactly, but it will be driven by the mixing of different ideas in new ways.

I don’t want to see this system of communication ever die. WordPress is a perfect platform of innovation, and I’d like to continue contributing to the project by keeping people involved in the art of blogging. Theme development seems to be my current obsession, so that’s what I’ll offer back to the community.

In conclusion, I want to say that I’m not entirely sure what the future holds for WordPress themes. I do know that it should be about what’s best for the user because that’s who we’re developing for. It should be about keeping people excited about blogging and keeping the communication open between different cultures. At the end of the day, we need to provide the best platform with the greatest ease of use possible.

Justin Tadlock can be found at JustinTadlock.com. His somewhat controversial Options Theme is probably one of the most jam-packed-with-options free themes you can find.

Nathan Rice

Here’s how I see it: Things we know for sure… 1) WordPress will continue to gain in popularity and usage and 2) people buy stuff, even if there is a free alternative.

Now, the mistake that people are making is thinking that Premium WordPress designers are making a couple thousand dollars per premium theme in sales, MAX. This is completely untrue. Premium themes sell very well. One could easily make $10,000 or more from a quality premium theme and some decent marketing. Release 5 of these, and you’re making a decent yearly salary, all for few weeks/months of work and ongoing support and maintenance.

And thus, the market saturation.

Here’s what’s going to happen. The Premium theme marketplace middle class will cease to exist. The popular theme designers will keep selling well, making thousands at $100-$200 per sale, and an underclass will emerge, selling themes for $20-$50 each (most going closer to $20). The underclass will make money from the bulk of sales. The upper class will make money from their reputation and popularity, perhaps even loyalty.

A few will join the ranks of the upper class, but they’ll do it the old fashioned way… they’ll release quality, innovative themes for free, bypassing the underclass altogether, building a reputation, offering free, high quality alternatives to the upper class themes, draw in new customers and steal a few from the established designers. But make no mistake, this will only rarely happen. Most will find that their work is not up to a high enough standard of quality, and will join the underclass selling themes for $20.

Premium themes aren’t going away, but they will change form. While currently we all are operating in a middle class market, it will split… sooner rather than later.

You can find Nathan Rice, his thoughts on themes, and his WordPress themes at NathanRice.net, RockinThemes.com, The Blog Herald, WordPressThemes.com and Performancing.

Sunny @ HeadSetOptions.org

WordPress themes will continue to be produced as long as self hosted WordPress users continue to use themes. The rate of theme production is neither proportional nor in anyway related to the rate growth of self hosted WP sites. Its market is unregulated and may seem to have hit a slump, but I foresee it being in vogue again once the Theme Viewer is back online.

As for paid/premium themes, the concept is here to stay. To understand that, we need to examine two very fundamental aspects these themes offer that no free theme (irrespective of quality) can.

Since there is a cost associated with these themes:

  1. Usage is limited; meaning the chances of ALL your friends using the same theme is slim.
  2. Offers a false sense of cyber legitimacy; meaning, if you paid for your theme, you must be serious about your work!

In short, I do not see the end of either free or paid themes anytime soon. But then again, I did not foresee myself being involved in fighting Global Warming either, so you never know.

Sunny can be found at HeadSetOptions.org. Make sure you check out his recently released free magazine-style theme, The Studio. It’s a nice one.

Brian Gardner

With the exponential rise of WordPress as the leading blog platform of choice, the number of WordPress themes (whether it be free or paid) is also on the increase. As developers uncover new ways to code and display content, WordPress blogs are now becoming WordPress sites. This is something that is starting to appeal to small business and companies who thought that WordPress was only capable of being a blog platform, and not a means of content management system. Having said that, the demand for more complex themes which accomplish more than the typical blog, only results in the increasing demand for both premium and custom themes.

Brian Gardner really needs no introduction, does he? He can be found at BrianGardner.com and is the lead coder and developer for StudioPress.com.

David Yeiser

The future of WordPress themes will be in expanding the idea of what constitutes a ‘theme.’ Currently a theme is viewed as an overall look and feel for your blog, which of course is what a theme is supposed to be. But as the market continues to become more and more saturated what is different is going to be what gets the attention (and all the perks that come with that). Moving forward, to be different will require theme authors to think outside the normal CSS and HTML constructs of a theme. Even having a laundry list of features doesn’t always set you apart from the crowd. It’s easy to copy if someone has the time and a similar skill set. Being different will mean presenting WordPress functionality in a new way, not necessarily adding anything new, just problem solving and out-of-the-box ideas packaged into a single download. The recent Prologue theme by Automattic is a solid example of what I’m trying to describe. Do I like that? Not necessarily, I would rather the deciding factor be design only, but it’s still exciting.

David Yeiser can be found at The Design Canopy. If you haven’t already, check out David’s theme WP Contact Manager to get an idea of the kind of out-of-the-box thinking he’s talking about.

What the Future Holds

Will premium WordPress themes stick around? Maybe. Will they be swamped by free themes? Maybe. Will innovative WordPress themes help transform our favorite blogging platform into a powerful CMS? Maybe. Do these questions matter? I’ll let you decide.

What does matter is this: the WordPress platform has a bright future. And that future needs to be themed. Premium WordPress theme designers, Web Developers building custom themes and enthusiasts releasing free themes are going to help change WordPress in the next year—just like they did last year and the year before that. Whatever the future holds it’s going to be exciting and I’m looking forward to it.

I’d like to thank everyone who participated here, not only for contributing their thoughts on the future of WordPress themes, but for contributing to the WordPress community at large. Thank you. If you haven’t yet, check out their sites.

And my thanks to you for reading this far. Wow. This is a crazy-long post isn’t it? What do you think? Should we do this again next year?

82 thoughts on “The Future of WordPress Themes 2008

  1. Armen, to the best of my knowledge, the Theme Marketplace idea that Automattic has discussed is structured for .com blogs, not .org. And last I heard, only a select few designers were chosen to submit themes for the beta testing of the concept, so in my opinion it would be a while before that even gets off the ground. I also believe that there will never be a .org theme marketplace officially sponsored by Automattic. JMO.

  2. It was a “crazy-long post.” Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading everyone’s replies. It was interesting to see what everyone thinks the future holds. And, you should definitely do it a year from now, see how many of our predictions came true.

  3. I hear you Brian. I’m fully aware it’s only been discussed for WordPress.com users, but it’ll still affect the .org market.

    If I, for example, can make $XXX by designing themes for a craving .com market, and have WordPress promote it for me, why would I spend more time creating themes for self hosted WordPress users, and have to market it all myself?

    Having said that, there are two things to note, i) I wasn’t aware that they may be restricting the designers, and ii) I haven’t made any plans to go down this road myself.

    On another note, have some people misread the question, and given their thoughts on the future of ‘Premium’ themes?

  4. I’ve assumed anyone’s focus on Premium themes (or free themes) depends on their interests, plans and viewpoints. The current excitement around Premium themes probably has something to do with it too.

    I also think a WordPress.com marketplace would have a tremendous impact on the .org community. Especially since it seems that it’s a requirement that the submitted themes are explicitly GPL. If the marketplace were to be combined with a revamped theme viewer, with the majority of these themes released through it to self-hosted users, and the marketplace is profitable and popular… well, you see where I’m going.

  5. Wow… I had never seen Shifter before… and it does everything Vanilla alpha does, and more!

    Why? Because it’s also based on Yahoo User Interface grids!!

    HOWEVER, and for me this is a BIG deal… it’s not built on Sandbox. So it lacks so much of the power you get as a CSS designer, to do heaps of very powerful design work in CSS only.

    So yay for Shifter, but I think if I can do the fairly easy thing of adding widgets everywhere like in Shifter, then Vanilla will still be my major preference.

    I’ll have more to say, but I will probably post on my own blog, in commentary on other people’s predictions.
    :)

    -Alister

    Alister Cameron // Blogologist
    http://www.alistercameron.com

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  8. The WordPress.com marketplace states that all themes in the marketplace will be available FREE to wordpress.org users, so *.com are charged, but free for download as an *.org user.

    Also the recently aquired Buddy Press (WordPress MU-based) can/will play a big role in the future of WP Themes, although some developers are thinking of making money with BP themes already without having even a closer look into BP, strange.

    I think, the rise of those premium themes were backed by the complete shutdown of the official WP themeviewer, no new themes or updates on the main “marketplace”, then “premium” themes were born.

    What’s missing, is the general idea of WordPress: GPL and free themes for everyone, since a few months (approx. Nov 07) everybody is jumping on the premium bandwagon, but forgetting the “community” thing.
    Just a few developers (e.g. Justin) are still releasing free high quality GPL themes for the crowd, while others are living of a somewhat loyal reader/user/buyer ship.

    Not to mention, that “premium” WP themes are still a small number in the worldwide designer scene, they just circle around the WordPress community, whereas a good design and its CSS is mentioned and discussed in various publications.

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  13. As more and more WPMU-based sites crop up (and stay up) there will be more of a demand for user-friendly themes. Widgets and options pages. :)

  14. I don’t think the marketplace, if it ever does get off the ground (and that’s a pretty big ‘if’ given Automattic’s tendency to get distracted by shiny new acquisitions like Gravatar and Buddypress) will pose any threat to the premium theme market. The advanced functionality of premium themes isn’t compatible with a MU setup, and so wordpress.com ‘premium’ themes will essentially be premium only in the sense that .com users have to pay for the right to use them.

    Should Automattic ever get their act together, I predict the .com themes repository will replace the current setup at themes.wordpress.net, so if you’re unwilling to licence your free theme as uncredited GPL for use on wordpress.com you would be unable to distribute it through official channels. Could be a lifesaver for the commercial directories which have sprung up in themes.wordpress.net’s absence, as not everyone will be willing to give up their linkbacks even in exchange for the possibility of earning a few dollars from .com. The appeal of the marketplace will wear off pretty quickly for the majority who make only a couple of sales, though a select few will find it profitable, and the first person to come up with a Club Penguin theme will make a bomb ;)

  15. Hi Ian, et al.

    The future of WordPress themes?

    What I’d like to see are simple themes that are easy to customise, for the coding numptees like me. What I think we’ll see, are hundreds and hundreds of themes exactly the same, as blogging becomes more mainstream.

    Who knows? It’s all happening in the blink of an eye.

    Ian, sorry for not replying to your kind email sooner. As luck would have it, the past month has been my busiest ever, and there are quite a few emails backed-up.

  16. I believe that the current trend in premium themes will continue, but you’ll also see several WordPress Theme Clubs pop up over the next year or so. All it would take is someone who has a bit of vision and wants to duplicate Rocket Themes business model, which seems to be working. As for WPDesigner’s theme club, although I wish him the best, the amount that he is charging isn’t capable of supporting a business, only a hobby.

  17. Thanks for the clarity, Milo. If that’s the case, then it shouldn’t be a problem. You’re also right about the lack of quality free themes being released over the past 6 months or so. I’m going to try and do my part to rectify that.

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  19. The future of WordPress themes? Alot of those comments seem right on in their own perspective.

    Having spoken with Matt recently, I really think more CMS like features will start being added to the admin section this year, if not it will via plugins. And with Automattic now owning BuddyPress, it’s almost overwhelming to think about the potential and the possibilities of it and the new markets it will open up.

    Despite a lot of negative thoughts on the WordPress Marketplace, it will be another great source of income and exposure for theme authors, I’m talking HUGE, but time will soon tell.

  20. As wordpress will continue to dominate blogging world as a cms platform of choice I am sure it will start to slide in the markets of bigger cms systems like drupal and joomla. That will mean more exposure to wordpress theme authors and of course more themes. The future of wordpress themes is bright even for us, the small authors!

  21. Good to see so many designers voicing their opinion in one place, the message I take from reading the comments is “we are headed in the right direction”.

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  23. It is exciting to be involved with WordPress. A few years back while teaching video blogging to kids in New York City, I accidently developed what I would consider a non-tubular, multi-author video blog theme. The kids loved blogging, they found it easy, and they soon wanted to customize the design. Today’s youth expect to be able to easily create websites that mimic their favorite websites. WordPress themes are kind of like clothes: Everyone wants to be fashionable….no scratch that….Most want to be fashionable. When their theme gets old, they go theme shopping. Competition will help make us all better themers and it will increase WordPress’ user base. Developing unique, quality themes that stretch the limits of WordPress adds just as much to WordPress’ value as further developing WordPress itself. After all, if all WordPress themes sucked, who would want to use WordPress? Only developers. The future of WordPress themes is bright.

    http://www.graphpaperpress.com

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  26. We need to have this same conversation about theme support, the real plague of WordPress theming. I notice that there are some designers in the list of experts that won’t even return simple emails about their published themes. Perhaps you could ask this same group abut support next, since a theme is pretty much worthless without it.

  27. Wow! This post was like an All Star Game of WordPress theme designers.
    I foresee specialty themes that “do something”, such as LaunchPad.
    Will video explode where podcasting has languished?
    Innovative concepts will make bloggers into online rock stars.

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  29. @Rick:

    “When the guys from Rockettheme.com get in to the “wordpress premium themes arena” they’are going to blow everybody out of the water and personally… I can’t wait”

    That sounds like a challenge to me. I can’t wait!

  30. It’s going to be increasingly about ease of use also – too many themes still require techie skills. That’s either to get them working, or to customise them. Ideally a premium theme should be not only easy to implement and use, but easy to turn into something new.

    Excellent post, thank you.

  31. “The advanced functionality of premium themes isn’t compatible with a MU setup, ”

    Not for the users blogs, no because they can;t edit any files, but for the main site? I think a lot of them are ideal. they’re already laid out for extra content so site owners can plunk in some plugins and whip up the next wp.com front page.

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  33. PJ says:

    This was a great round-table of WP experts on this topical issue. I feel that the future of premium themes will be tied to having option pages for easy customisation, supporting clients and meeting the needs of the client group.

    There’s a plethora of magazine themes now, but what else does the client group want? I’ve noticed that iThemes has been targeting small businesses with its themes, which is a really wise decision. I also think that the new Market theme is going to be a huge seller for e-commerce entrepreneurs. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the incredible potential of WordPress for a variety of uses, and theme designers can and should capitalise on these opportunities.

  34. Great post Ian. It was nice to see everyones thought on where they think things are headed with WordPress. It would be nice to see this again a year from now, just for fun :)

  35. In my opinion there are two things that will start happening.

    The first is precisely what David Yeiser did with the Contact Manager. People will start building themes that extend WordPress’ use beyond what we are used to right now. And I don’t like to call them “themes” because they will be much more than that. The WordPress platform can be used for numerous things. It is the outside-the-box thinking that’s missing.

    The second thing that I see also involves outside-the-box thinking. People will start seeing WP as a capable CMS and start using it as such. Small businesses will see it as a cost-effective solution for their needs, however many don’t have the budget to pay for a custom solution. As a result, the premium themes will have to start incorporating options to easily personalize the theme through the admin panel. The premium themes won’t be so much about design as much as they will be about functionality and flexibility.

  36. Steve says:

    The fact is that until premium WPT came to the table, we had very little in way of designs that I would call close to anything different.

    Anybody who knew how to close a tag was putting out the same old thing, I for one am very pleased that these talented designers have decided to work in WordPress, my only question is;

    What took you so long!

    -Cheers

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