Matt Mullenweg & Joseph Scott Discuss The WordPress Themes Directory

On July 18, Joseph Scott announced that after what seemed like, well, what seemed like a very long time, an official WordPress themes directory had returned. And you know what? It turned out to be awesome (and if you read below, it should get awesome-er). But I still had some questions and a few  details that I wanted clarification on. I bet you did too. With that in mind, here’s Matt Mullenweg and Joseph Scott on what’s happening at the WordPress themes directory.

ThemeShaper: The new WordPress themes directory is great but—and I think I speak for almost every WordPress user here—what took so long? Was it taking “great lengths to make this as painless as possible for theme authors”? Or was it something else?

Matt: Basically the system for interacting with Subversion invisibly via ZIP files took a bit longer than we thought. There is still a lot more to do to make it a fantastic experience for both theme authors and WP users, but for launch we just wanted to get in the most essential features.

ThemeShaper: What does the WordPress Themes Directory bring to the community that Theme Clubs and individual developers aren’t bringing right now? And flipping it around, what is the directory bringing to those same Theme Clubs and individual developers?

Matt: Theme authors and all the different theme sites were all doing interesting things and great jobs on their own, but if you think from the point of view of a WordPress user there were a couple of big problems:

  1. Themes were scattered across the web, searching for them was frustrating, it was easy to miss good ones, and each site had its own UI for downloading and testing.
  2. Many of the theme directories seemed more interested in promoting paid themes they got affiliate revenue from than highlighting the amazing free GPL themes out there.
  3. There were some fake theme directories set up that were distributing malware, if you installed one of their themes (often copies of legit themes) it would hack your blog.
  4. Themes were of varying quality, and it was difficult to tell which themes supported which WordPress features.

The WordPress theme directory addresses all of these, and as a bonus allows us to do a theme update mechanism like we have for plugins and give theme authors a canonical place to track their distribution.

Since there have been over 150,000 downloads in less than a month it seems to be working.

ThemeShaper: What’s your favorite feature in the directory right now? Are there any new features we can look forward to?

Matt: I consider it in beta right now, there are a ton of features coming soon that will be my favorite.

Joseph: We’ve had some great ideas suggested, some small and refining, others requiring more work. I agree with Matt that the best features of the theme directory are the ones we’re still working on.

ThemeShaper: Now that we know theme updates that work much like the current plugin updates are expected to arrive with WordPress 2.7 can you tell us how that’s expected to integrate with the Themes Directory and what that’ll look like? Will developers that forgo the themes directory be able to use this feature?

Matt: It will work just like plugin updates, but perhaps with some built-in versioning or difference tracking. It will only be available for themes in the directory.

ThemeShaper: What exactly is the automated theme checker looking for? What isn’t it?

Joseph: Mostly what you see in the requirements page: zip file, style.css with the needed data, checking for unique names and version numbers. Beyond that each theme is installed and enabled on a WordPress blog to make sure it works. We’re continuing to look at other checks we can add or tweak during the upload process. Being able to provide instant feedback to a theme author is a win for everyone.

ThemeShaper: Following up on checking themes, how many people are auditing themes right now?

Matt: Right now it’s the work of one very dedicated person. As we work the kinks out and make the automated theme checker better this will either become less work or we’ll get more volunteers for it.

ThemeShaper: Is there any one offense theme authors are committing again and again that are driving the auditor mad? How can we stop the madness?

Joseph: One common issue is referencing files that don’t exist. Usually it’s an image or CSS file that they forgot to include in the zip file. The best test for theme authors is to take their theme and try it out on a different blog than the one they developed the theme on. Any assumptions that were specific to their development blog that crept into the theme generally show up pretty quick.

ThemeShaper: What criteria is being used to select the featured themes right now? Or in other words, what makes a theme feature-worthy?

Matt: Right now it’s somewhat arbitrary, probably going to change the home page experience to promote more themes and be a little more systematic about what we feature.

Joseph: As Matt mentioned, right now it’s arbitrary. We’ve talked about a few different approaches to featuring a theme on the front page, so expect to see some changes there in the future.

ThemeShaper: Lastly, a lot of theme authors are concerned about licensing their themes as GPL. I’d say it’s the number one complaint directed at the directory. They don’t want their graphics becoming everyone’s property. Ignoring the whole debate-that-will-never-die about themes inheriting the GPL license from WordPress, will the directory ever accept any other licenses?

Matt: In the 5 years I’ve been doing WordPress I’ve seen open win over closed again and again. It’s the story of WordPress itself. People do whatever they want, of course, but on our official resources we’ve always strived to only promote things that are Open Source the same way WordPress is. I think it’s part of our social responsibility because our project has benefited so much from Open Source already, it’s only right to give back.

22 thoughts on “Matt Mullenweg & Joseph Scott Discuss The WordPress Themes Directory”

  1. It’s nice to have a theme library back, and even nicer that Thematic is doing well.

    It can’t be long before we start seeing some Thematic variations popping up. Your framework rocks.

  2. Great interview, with some interesting insight from those guys. I’m particularly interested in the talk about “open winning over closed everytime”. It seems like, as of late, there are very few theme developers doing awesome things that are open and freely available. Everyone has chosen one particular business model and are running with it. I’m interested in seeing a different sort of thing. Am I along on that?

  3. It is possible to make a living on making Open Source software, but how can it be done through creating GPL themes for WordPress? Ian, I’d like to see a post that answers that question. Are donations that effective? Does selling support work with all the free forums? Or is the solution to use themes as a matter of attracting visitors to a blog? Thanks.

  4. I personally would like to see CC licensing accepted. But I understand their OSS support and resilience. I suppose I can release one version of the theme GPL’ed and another CC elsewhere. Or something. It’s not a big deal. I guess the internal struggle is with wanting to retain ownership of the original and not have my “graphics becom[e] everyone’s property…”

  5. @Ryan If you’re interested in seeing a different business model you can check out Justin Tadlock’s Theme Hybrid. And there’s the model I’ve been developing, and am continuing to develop, with Thematic. But you’re right, there’s definitely a race to be the best of the same.

    @Dan I’m not really qualified to write that post. I don’t take donations and I don’t charge for support.

  6. Interesting interview. I don’t think licensing themes under GPL is such a bad thing for developers. It’s hard to design a theme that can fit everyone’s needs, so the real value lays into personalization and support. This will put pressure on premium theme designers to lift their standards.

  7. Very fair point about the GPL / Open Source clash towards the end. I guess if you are not comfortable with people being able to use your graphics you shouldn’t release them as a free theme for an open source platform!

  8. Does this mean Matt and Automattic will begin to pay attention to copyright themselves? I welcome this change in policy if it’s true. I’ve seen them remove credit for people’s work, including my own, when copyright is in place. They seem to have no people with doing so but it bothers me that they try to enforce it on others.

  9. Thanks a lot for this helpful interview – I wish I’d found it earlier – but it also answered my questions while waiting for my first theme release at the directory. I think giving your themes away for free makes sence. Regarding the linkpower you get, as well as visitor numbers. Multiply every visitor with 5 cents CPC – that’s value.

  10. It is great to be able to find WordPress themes in one place – a place that can be trusted to distribute safe themes that work and not a lot of junk.

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