How To Design A Popular WordPress Theme: Chris Pearson’s Secret

Want to design a popular WordPress Theme? Then you better take a look at what Chris Pearson is doing. He knows the secret of designing a popular theme.

Chris is arguably the most popular and successful WordPress Theme designer in the short history of blogging. Press Row, Cutline, The Copyblogger Theme, Neo-Classical, and now Thesis, have all struck a resounding chord with the WordPress community. It’s impossible to find a blogger that hasn’t run across at least 1 of these 5 themes and admired them.

What’s his secret? Why are his simple-looking themes more successful than others? Can any theme designer duplicate his success?

The Pearson Principle

Yep. They can, you can, anyone can. I’ve reduced Chris Pearson’s Theme design ethos to a simple maxim that can be adopted and used by anyone. I’ll call it the Pearson Principle. Here it is.

Bloggers want powerfully simple design on an equally robust framework.

That’s it. Give a blogger what he wants and your WordPress Theme Design will be talked about, downloaded, and wildly successful. It’ll also help a lot of people out which, trust me, is really what it means to be successful. Unfortunately, while it’s simple enough to state, it’s not that easy to do. There’re 2 big snags in that statement: powerfully simple design and the equally robust framework.

Powerfully Simple Design

Powerfully simple design is really, really hard to do. Like, crazy hard. Fail at it and you have something that looks like it was designed in Microsoft Word or maybe a wire-frame of a future project. Though if you succeed you’ve made something timeless. Bloggers want to see themselves in a WordPress Theme. A good simple design makes room for them to project their self into the design, their future plans. A powerfully simple design tells them they have no other choice but to make their home there.

An Equally Robust Framework

And the framework supporting this design needs to be equally robust. What I mean by framework is a little slippery though. To get at what I mean by framework think of an actual framework, like for a house. Or better yet, think of the 3 Little Pigs. Chris Pearson’s themes are built out of brick and bloggers can tell right away. Over time, Chris has added some decoration and extra rooms to his brick house, sure, but he went and made the walls 6 feet thick.

Start Studying

Want to know more? Study Chris Pearson’s masterworks in blog theme design. Study how these themes have been presented to the blogging community. And finally, study Chris’ community, the bloggers that use his themes. You’ll be a better theme designer for it.

25 thoughts on “How To Design A Popular WordPress Theme: Chris Pearson’s Secret

  1. It’s true, Pearson is one of the most well established theme developers out there, if not the most.

    I would probably say it’s developers, rather than bloggers, who want the stripped down design and robust framework, to start their own themes with. Aside from that, I agree.

  2. I fully agree with pretty much everything said in this post. My latest theme, Gallery, really provides high-end functionality, a range of ways to use it, and simple administration. People really do want something that is beautiful, functional, but easy to handle. Great post.

    And you can’t just copy themes that other people have made successful and expect to be just as successful. You have to take a risk, find an opening in the theme market, and make something unique, innovative, fresh but still simple. Those are the themes that really take off.

  3. Chris is my hero.

    Not a day goes by I don’t StumbleUpon a site (or two or three) powered by one of his several themes. For the last two years, I’ve used his themes just about universally, and now have the awesome privilege of helping to develop Thesis. What little I can add to the theme pales in comparison to his 12, 14, 16-hour long code-a-thons within which he practically rewrites whole swaths of code, introducing new features and optimizing old ones in the process.

    Chris Pearson’s secret? He’s a cyborg. He is the Lieutenant Commander Data of WordPress theme development. Seriously.

    • “Chris Pearson’s secret? He’s a cyborg. He is the Lieutenant Commander Data of WordPress theme development. Seriously.”

      Okay, now that just made my day. :)

  4. very very true !!!! I started with his free themes, and later decided that it’s not bad to pay for a theme from him !

  5. While, I have personally used several of Chris’ themes, I have never found them as accessible or easy as Thematic. So, Ian, don’t sell yourself short (if you are). You might have studied Chris’ design and dev, but you have gone further than anything Chris released.

  6. You totally hit the nail on the head here, homeh. Basically, I am of the opinion that theme developers must approach problems from the standpoint of ubiquitous solutions, and in theory, this should yield more simplistic, universally-adaptable results.

    For years, themes were viewed as designs, and given the potential power of themes, this is a really shortsighted approach to theme development. Over the past year or so, the WordPress theme landscape has been radically altered by a few developers who understand the truth about ubiquitous theme development. Thanks to people like Ian, users now have sites that are more powerful, flexible, and efficient than ever before.

    Also, Rhett, if you’ve never used Thesis, then you really haven’t seen my work at all. The default Thesis design is like the wrapper on a candy bar—it might look nice (or you may even hate it!), but you gotta rip that puppy off and see what’s underneath if you want the goods.

    • Thanks for the comment Chris. Approaching design problems “from the standpoint of ubiquitous solutions” is not only the key thing but just plain good sense.

    • It was a compliment to Ian and it was my opinion. But you are right, I haven’t used Thesis. And I am not a designer or developer so the undercarriage is illegible to me. But from what I have read and seen of Thesis and from your other themes (that I have used and enjoyed), I simply prefer Ian’s Thematic for ease of use and moreover Ian’s approachability. He concerns himself with his community and I really appreciate that.

  7. I remember when Chris Pearson stood up during SXSW 06 at the blog design session. He had the panelists – Susie Gardner, Lisa Sabin-Wilson, Joelle Reader, and Peter Flaschner – critique a design he was doing for a guy named Brian Clark. You guessed it, Copyblogger. The rest, as they say, is history.

  8. Not ubiquitous. Pearson excluded lazy morons from the potential customers, focusing on something that mid-grade users and designers can use. That kept his support headaches low and allowed him to make something cool. Catering to angry lazy jerks…does nothing.

  9. Love this simple but powerful writeup. Got a lot of studying to continue doing on this end. Personally, I like the “walls six feet thick” part. I’ve always seen web design and development very close to the concepts of physical construction. Lean up against the wall or jump on the floor and a good design doesn’t leave you shaking.

    I’m looking forward to a little more elaboration on the two concepts – simple design/robust framework – from the Ian perspective. There are plenty of perspective on these two secret ingredients ;-) Thanks for your commitment to content that helps others succeed!

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  11. When it comes to design, there are very few people who I really admire. I think that artistic web design with lots of background images, etc., can be done well. I also believe that minimalist can be done well too.

    And both minimalist and graphic can be done terribly, which is almost always the case.

    Chris does minimalist well, and here’s why. All the elements look like they were thought out, probably for a long time. Minor tweaks were made. Colors adjusted. Sizes, spacing, etc., all perfected. That’s minimalism done well, and Chris has the touch.

    The mark of a truly well done minimalist design is that you like it more and more the longer you look at it.

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  13. Isn’t Thesis in direct competition with Thematic? They are both frameworks.

    In fact Thesis’ control panel and setting options makes it really powerful and if you add the Thesis OpenHook plugin you now have more content flexibility than Thematic, with one exception. In Thematic you can put a widget in many different places/hooks using the control panel. You can’t do that in Thesis…yet.

    I’ve had a chance to play with Thesis and it’s impressive and extremely powerful. I must admit it does leave something to be desired when it comes to Thematic’s feature set.

    • Direct competition, perhaps, but there is a key difference: Thesis isn’t free. ;)

      Still, it’s good to know that even among theme authors who both have extraordinarily popular theme frameworks, there is respect. And that’s awesome.

      • Yeah Thesis isn’t free and it shouldn’t be. I use Thematic for one of my personal blogs but I bought Thesis developers pack to take care of several blog site designs I’m working on as well because of the power within and ease of maintenance for customers.

        The one thing that Thesis has to be careful with however is keeping it’s customer base happy while improving upon the product. Paying the price for Thesis means people are financially invested in the product and with that comes expectations and demands.

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  16. I’m using Thematic for a couple of things I do for other people.
    But I’ve looked at Thesis and other Chris Pearson designs and I absolutely loved them.
    Problem was the price, for me personally as a private person with little income.
    These last five years I’ve tried MovableType first but that was not very user friendly theme wise but I gor along with it so long as my needs were small.
    After switching to WordPress however the world became a much bigger place if it comes down to layout-design and website functionality.
    In finding something pleasing to look at AND being functional Chris Pearson stood out from the crowd because I could see the ‘ease-of-use’ potential in what he created.
    I’m no coder, not a designer, nor do I want to be. But I am someone who has professionally and/or semi-professionally been busy deciding whether a coder or designer was worth getting (for a specific job). I’m the guy that tries to tell the ‘I want something but I don’t know how to decide’ guy what is good and what is not.
    Chris Pearson gets it, and has decided upon a system that hopefully makes him some money. But…, Ian Stewart gets it too! And my guess is that he makes a couple of bucks along the way as well.
    The difference is the business model and we, the user, must decide which is best for us.
    I like both guys coding and apparent design principles, and I even think I know why Ian decided to write this little piece about Chris….

    greetings from the Netherlands.

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