The Future of WordPress Themes 2009

Last year’s Future of WordPress Themes (read it here) found 11 people committed to thinking creatively about WordPress themes stopping to look where WordPress theming was heading—and now we’re doing it again! These 15 people—designers, developers, and WordPress enthusiasts—are some of the people who will shape WordPress themes, and what they mean, into version 3.0 and beyond.

Here is how they answered the question “What is the future of WordPress Themes?”

Brian Gardner

brian-gardner1I think the future of WordPress themes is heading into a very positive direction – there are a lot of designers who are developing some really great themes. It seems that a lot of us have our own unique style, which makes it great for users to enjoy a wide selection of quality themes. Another thing that I have personally experienced is building plugin-type functions into a theme, which enhances it that much more. Special thanks go to guys like Nathan Rice who are focusing more on the code/functionality of a theme, because they are adding to the overall impact that themes are making. Overall, I’d say that the next year of WordPress themes should be as productive, if not more than the last, and the ability to use WordPress as a content management system only seems to become an easier thing to achieve.

Brian Gardner has made many a WordPress theme and currently releases his pay-to-download GPL themes over at StudioPress.

Andrew Rickmann

wp-funI think we are going to see a realization from free premium (as opposed to proprietary) theme authors that there are immense gains to be had from modularizing themes and working together.

I think this will manifest itself through functional classes where development is shared between several authors, or possibly with each author creating one in their area of specialty which they share with others. These will make up a library of functionality that will provide standard UI and database interaction and along the way make it harder for proprietary themers to offer that little extra. It will hasten the switch from selling licenses to selling services.

It wouldn’t surprise me if someone created a theme plugins module, where the user could add and remove functionality with the themes falling back to a default and which would allow full plugins to be included in a sub-folder so they could also be distributed, and therefore developed, separately.

I have been predicting intelligent solutions for some time. I still don’t feel the theme community are ready for this yet, so I think there will still be a strong focus on making things simple for users. I see a lot of redevelopment as a lot of complex solutions are modularized to make their development easier and I think this might delay the introduction of some great things. I would like to see a growing trend in premium themes that really put the onus on the user to understand HTML and PHP. The kind of themes that are designed to be activated and left on instead of tweaked to within an inch of their lives.

Finally, I really think this year we will start to see themes in HTML 5. There have been a number of great blog posts about how to use HTML 5, the specs are pretty easy to follow, and the basics can be used now, albeit some minor jiggery-pokery is required for IE. I am developing one for “the platform that shall not be named” and I really like the way it operates.

Andrew Rickmann’s Fun With WordPress is one of the best places to find real creative thought about WordPress plugins and themes.

Elliot Jay Stocks

elliot-stocksOnce Automattic allow users to discover and install themes directly through the WordPress admin (as you currently can with plugins), this will – obviously – have a huge impact on the way in which themes are found and used. Although it’s a huge plus for the user, it might not be a desirable situation for some theme developers, because it means that – as users abandon Google searching and instead rely on the in-built theme directory – themes that aren’t submitted will potentially be left undiscovered. And as we’ve seen in recent times, ‘premium’ theme developers have been prevented from submitting their themes to the directory, and that’s a huge chunk of the theme market, especially if you consider that premium themes are usually – but of course not always – of a higher quality than most free themes.

I’m still sitting on the fence with regards to the premium theme debate. I can understand Automattic’s concern over profit being made from open source software, but I also understand the premium theme developers’ wish to make money from the hard work they’re putting in. Right now I’m really not sure which way the tide will turn, and can only hope for an amicable agreement between both camps.

With regards to child themes, I think we’re on the cusp of seeing them go very big, once they’re adopted by the community as a whole. The work of people like Ian is certainly helping to promote this change. I personally think child themes need to see further improvement before they can become a viable option for non-blog sites that use WordPress, but I’m confident that time will come soon, and there will be a lot of people ready to take that new approach to theming.

Elliot Jay Stocks is a popular freelance designer, author and public speaker. His Starkers Theme (a stripped down starting point for WordPress Theme development) has powered up many a blog.

Darren Hoyt

darren-hoytOne thing I noticed in 2008 was a major spike in the number of WordPress tutorial blogs popping up. A lot of them offer creative code hacks and ideas you wouldn’t find in the Codex. Major design blogs like Smashing Magazine have also been making WordPress modding a featured topic.

As for 2009, I think all the recent exposure and accessibility of documentation will encourage a new wave of themers. More front-end designers who ordinarily shy away from coding will begin experimenting more rapidly with WordPress theming. What I hope is they’ll bring a fresh visual style to the way blogs traditionally display content. I think more themers will begin to deviate in general, instead of relying on standard columns and bloggy stuff (date archives, tag clouds, recent comments) which seem to have become less useful.

On that note, I think users are already realizing the limitations of the traditional blog format. I’m guessing by the end of 2009 the WordPress core itself will resemble a true CMS more closely. As CMS-like functions are added to the core, themers will incorporate them in creative ways, and the face of themes will begin to change.

Overall blogging frequency will probably continue to decline as microblogging goes more mainstream and all the other branches of social media pull people in various directions. I imagine more users will want themes that tie all their content together in a meaningful way. Sweetcron, Friendfeed and Tumblr all capitalize on the fact that people are writing (longform) less, in favor of sharing links and accumulating media.

Finally, I hope Automattic takes notice of projects like Thematic and Hybrid and considers shipping WordPress with a more robust default theme to replace Kubrick.

Darren Hoyt is a popular web designer, creator of the Mimbo Theme and the Mimbo Pro Theme.

Nathan Rice

nathan-riceWordPress 2.8, due out within a couple of months, will undoubtedly contain a feature set not unlike the current “automatic plugin update” feature, but for themes. Users will be able to upgrade their themes automatically from their dashboard, assuming their theme is hosted on Extend.

Given this, it is my opinion that 2009 will see more “Theme Frameworks” than ever before. 2008 saw the introduction of Ian Stewart’s Thematic, Justin Tadlock’s Hybrid, and Chris Pearson’s Thesis, all of which are (in reality) theme frameworks. And 2009 will, no doubt, offer newer, better frameworks than even these.

Why? Two words: Modification Protection. Let’s face it, users want to always be up-to-date with the latest code from theme authors, but they HATE the fact that, most of the time, when they upgrade they lose their modifications. Pearson introduced a combination of hooks, user functions, and user styles. Ian Stewart spearheaded the child-theme concept, which WordPress 2.7 seems to support. Both of these options allow for the protection of user modifications during upgrades, because users are encouraged to make modifications separate from the core files of the theme, much like WordPress allows in its plugin functions.

And when WordPress eventually includes automatic upgrade features, the protection of user modifications becomes ESSENTIAL.

Frameworks also allow theme authors to allow their themes to accumulate fixes and functions. If every theme offered by a theme author was built on an internal framework, updates to the framework would apply to ALL themes built on it. Fixes and Features would snowball.

Frameworks aren’t perfect. They require unnecessary overhead that I believe can lead to code bloat, but the benefits they offer are undeniable. They’re here to stay, and they will be a staple for 2009 in the WordPress world.

PS – This year, the line dividing theme and plugin will be blurred even further. Plugins will, in some cases, do a theme’s job, and themes will, in some cases, do a plugin’s job.

Nathan Rice is lead developer of iThemes, creator of The Proximity News Theme, and the man behind Elevate Themes.

Joost de Valk

yoastThe future of WordPress themes has two directions: I see more and more themes with functionality coming up, complete job boards, bookmarking sites etc. Next to that, the premium theme market is growing it seems, and is adding tons of great design ideas to the community. In no way is it dead, but the times that people could sell 100,000 copies of the same “simple” theme are gone, as there’s more competition and the market is becoming fragmented. Chris Pearson’s Thesis and Ian Stewart’s Thematic might be pointing in the direction where it should be heading: a theme that basically isn’t a theme anymore, it’s a layout engine.

That layout engine allows people to get a unique design. I’m seeing a lot of “simple” bloggers around me become more professional about their blog and switching to their own “unique” theme, because they see it’s their online business card, and it can get them recognition, and may even get them hired. Another “new” thing is that people seem to think about SEO a lot more, as well as optimizing their themes for the different social visitors that might come to it.

In all, the theme market is a pretty cool one, with lots of improvements flowing back into the general WordPress community, which is the way it should be, I guess. 🙂

Joost de Valk is a Dutch developer, WordPress developer and online marketeer. He’s also the author of many fine WordPress plugins that come highly recommended by me.

Jeff Chandler

jeffroWhile 2008 proved to be a dynamite year for WordPress themes, especially the news/magazine layout, I think this year will continue down that same road but with improvements being made in all areas such as less dependency on the end user knowing how to utilize custom fields, better UI when it comes to configuring the theme in the WordPress administration panel, better documentation bundled with themes, etc. In last years prediction, I mentioned that the next trend of themes would revolve around Widgets enabling the end user more control of the initial layout of the theme. It didn’t quite take off as I thought it would however, I saw bits and pieces of the trend taking shape at the end of 2008 and I think it will make lots of progress throughout 2009.

Another trend I’m subscribing to in 2009 is the year of the theme framework. We have quite a few theme frameworks already in action and throughout 2009, I feel a few more will come online. However, educating end users about theme frameworks, child themes, CSS, should be a top priority or else this child theme concept will never lift high off the ground.

Last but not least, I see the premium/proprietary theme market expanding instead of shrinking. Will these new entrants abide by the GPL? Only time will tell.

Jeff Chandler—you might know him better as jeffro2pt0—may just be the biggest WordPress enthusiast on the planet. He’s the host of the popular WordPress Weekly Podcast and can find him thinking about WordPress and WordPress themes on Weblog Tools Collection and WPTavern.

Dougal Campbell

dougalThere are several genres of themes available which target different types of site:

‘Blog’ themes are created for your (mostly) typical blog user. Though they might vary quite a bit in their general visual design, they follow the typical ‘header/content/sidebars/footer’ model, with the content presented in the usual reverse chronological order. The main change I see happening here is with themes which provide some sort of customizing feature on the backend which lets you choose options like: header graphics; one, two, or three sidebars, along with their positions; color schemes; They will also be pre-bundled with several plugins which allow you to pull in your content from other sources such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, etc. These kinds of themes already exist, but I think we’ll see the ease of customization rise to a new level.

‘Portfolio’ themes are specialized for sites that mainly deal with pages more than posts. I think we’ll see a spike in the number of available portfolio themes, with a variety of specialities. Some will come ready for e-commerce use, some will be geared towards showcasing artwork or multimedia, others may be specialized towards providing downloadable products, with features for tracking click-throughs and such.

‘Magazine’ themes are already pretty abundant, but I think we’ll see more of these appear, as well. These usually differ from standard ‘blog’ themes by including features such as ‘featured articles’, detailed author profiles, more complex and precise grid-based layouts, more advanced typography and various other visual tidbits borrowed from more traditional print media.

And across all types of themes, I think we’ll be seeing more themes which provide ways to fine-tune placement of text snippets, widgets, and such. One way will be by providing many widget containers, like Thematic. Another way will be by creating advanced “theme frameworks”, like Carrington.

All in all, if I had to sum it up in two words: extreme customization.

Dougal Campbell is a WordPress Developer Emeriti, creator of Ping-O-Matic and the creator of several WordPress plugins.

Andrea of WPMU Tutorials

wpmuI’m seeing more of a call for themes that don’t require users to edit any code. This way, they can be used by really novice WordPress users, and are out-of-the-box ready for WPMU setups. Speaking of WPMU, over the next year you will start to see more themes coming out specifically for mu-driven home pages. On top of that, I think the BuddyPress theme market will explode, especially for the member themes, which are a different beast than regular WordPress themes. More of the premium sites will show up with WPMU installs so people can “try before they buy”.

Paid themes will continue to thrive, because when users see a theme they want, they buy it.
And if you’re not following WordPress MU development and BuddyPress, or haven’t even looked at either, then you’re already too late. 😉

Andrea is the woman behind WPMU Tutorials.

Derek Punsalan

derekWhen I think of the future of WordPress themes, I hope for a major push in the distribution model to better benefit the end user. WordPress 2.7 introduced a major convenience milestone by introducing the ability to install and update plugins from within the Dashboard. When are users going to enjoy the same convenience with themes? And when are theme developers going to be able to push updates to users without having to rely on their own homegrown methods of updating users? Blog posts, RSS feeds, email newsletters, and Twitter updates can only go so far. Is this a distribution solution managed from, or can theme developers deploy updates directly from their own servers? Because anyone is free to distribute their own themes, the immediate challenge – of course – will revolve around the question of moderation. That in itself is an entirely different blog post.

Derek Punsalan makes awesome things and puts them online. Awesome things like Grid Focus and The Unstandard.


adiiI just re-read last year’s “Future of WP Themes” post and it’s funny to see that not many of the predictions came to fruition. I think part of this reason is that WordPress (the core) hasn’t really progressed as we thought it would (i.e. to more of a general CMS).

Ultimately themes are limited to include functionality that is supported by the core (mostly). Sure – we’ve done quite a few unique add-ons on our themes at WooThemes, but there’s always a balance to adding functionality that is not supported by the core (I sometimes get the feeling I’m hacking WP; especially on client projects). So for themes to really progress in 2009, WP needs to progress as well (that’s assuming that Matt & co actually want to turn it into a more generally-purposed CMS).

So considering these limitations, I’d like to see themes containing more widgetized spaces (not only in the sidebars) and allow the theme’s user to incorporate widgets specifically designed for that theme. In addition to this, a variety of page, post & archive templates will extend the options available to the user, in terms of which widgets to display where.

And then lastly, I think that we’ll see quite a big fuss being made about BuddyPress themes soon, as everyone searches to build their own, little niche social network.

Adii is a founding partner in WordPress theme club WooThemes.

Justin Tadlock

justinI’m surprised every day at things I see happening with WordPress themes. Even if my predictions aren’t correct, this will be a bit of a look into the direction my themes will be headed in the next year.

Theme authors will start focusing more on niche themes. We’ve already started seeing the rise of real estate themes, video themes, and others. This will allow theme authors to grab the attention of small businesses with highly-focused designs.

The proprietary theme market will continue to grow. More theme clubs will pop up. The top developers will continue to rake in cash while new designers looking to break into the market will have to undercut the major players drastically in price while offering the same level of support and design.

I hope we continue thinking of more creative ways to make money while still honoring the GPL. There’s a lot of untapped potential that could make for some interesting business strategies for themes.

End users are demanding more. There will be a three-way split in users. I see theme developers branching off to cater to each group. These three groups will be:

  1. Users that want simple themes that they can customize to their heart’s content.
  2. Users that want complete control of their theme from the WordPress admin.
  3. Users that want the flexibility of a theme framework.

A theme developer that can merge all three groups will be unstoppable.

I’d like to make it the Year of the Theme Framework.

We’ve seen quite a few frameworks pop up, and I’ve heard of a few other people considering developing their own. Frameworks allow for quick turnover when you have many clients. Theme authors can put out loads of different designs without having to do all the mundane work of recoding the same things. Reusing code is a cornerstone of good development practice, and it’s starting to spill over into the WordPress theme development world.

If it’s not going to be the Year of the Theme Framework, then it should at least be the year that widgets break from the bonds of the sidebar. WordPress widgets allow users to add custom content easily. The text widget itself is the most versatile tool in WordPress — you can’t convince me otherwise. Theme developers will start adding many widget areas to their themes, giving users more control.

I suspect many developers will continue to pile on extra theme options to try and satisfy a need with an ever-growing user base that demands not having to touch code. Many mistakes will be made in this regard in terms of best practices, but many users will flock to the most option-filled themes.

As always, I’m excited and happy to be in the mix of things. I’m looking forward to another year of developing WordPress themes.

Justin Tadlock is the WordPress Theme Developer behind the Hybrid Theme Framework and WordPress Theme club Theme Hybrid.

Ashley Morgan

upstartBlogging will continue to grow. WordPress will continue to dominate. And themes, both free and premium, will continue to grow in number and quality.

Hopefully a consensus will be reached regarding the ethical and legal implications of applying restrictive licenses to WordPress themes. Currently the majority of premium theme developers attach restrictive licenses to their themes which actively prevent any further development and release. Even if I buy a developers license for Thesis, for example, I am not allowed, according to that license, to develop the theme and redistribute it back into the WordPress community for further development.

This raises an important question that needs to be answered. Given that all WordPress themes, by their very nature, are rooted in open source code, is any restrictive license that is attached to that code legally enforceable and, if so, how much theme modification is required by a developer, licensed or otherwise, before they are able to redistribute that theme for free in order to facilitate further open source development?

Ashley Morgan is a musician, blogger and WordPress Theme developer. He’s the upstart blogger behind Upstart Blogger.

Chris Pearson

pearsonSince 2005, there’s been a very understated, very organic evolution in the world of WordPress theme development. Largely unnoticed until 2008, this evolution has really picked up steam in recent months, and now theme development is, in my opinion, a market force that is becoming extremely influential.

Themes represent a crucial link in the chain of mass communication, simply because they have the power to allow non-technical people to operate effectively in a space that has, heretofore, only been dominated by the technically-inclined. In 2009, themes will allow more creative individuals from a wider array of backgrounds and interests than ever before to express themselves purposefully and efficiently on the Web.

Themes are a big, big deal.

Wait, maybe I should rephrase that—intelligent themes that truly bridge the technical gap and allow more creative individuals to operate online are a big, big deal 😀

Chris Pearson is a well-known WordPress developer who specializes in building detailed, robust WordPress Themes. He also runs DIYthemes, home of the popular Thesis Theme.

Alister Cameron

alisterI think WordPress themes are (almost) fundamentally flawed thanks to WordPress’s lack of a proper presentation layer. It’s so hard to make changes for non-PHP people because they have to learn both PHP and loads of WordPress functions to do funky stuff.

So with my (forever upcoming) Vanilla theme I have implemented a proper templating engine to ensure that, at least within the scope of what Vanilla can do, theme designers and users don’t have to see and PHP at all, and yet are free to make dramatic design changes to their themes.

WordPress is not about to get retrofitted with a proper templating engine because — last I heard him on the subject — Matt was against the idea, liking the leanness of the current “raw PHP” approach, and he has many who agree with him.

But for mine, I think WordPress really needs proper separation of the presentation layer, however that is achieved.

Another issue that bugs me: in their efforts to create the next killer theme, I am seeming more and more themers trying to bloat their themes with a load of features which is best kept out of the theme and in plugins. Today I watched a themer on video boasting that his upcoming secret theme would do all of this and all of that so that all kinds of plugins were no longer necessary. That’s just plain wrong.

Let the plugin authors do what they do, and lets keep themes about clean, flexible, fast and standards-sensitive presentation, and (ideally) nothing more. It’s arrogant to try and do better than a plugin author who does what he/she does really well. And it’s silly. I could say more but I won’t.

So I think we’ll hit a crisis point some time soon where themers will try and add everything including the kitchen sink into their themes and then finally we’ll all get over that stupid idea and instead write themes that are plugin-aware. Many of us are heading that way, anyway. Can the rest of you please catch up sooner rather than later?!

Finally, I do think it IS a theme developers problem to look at performance and scalability. This, in particular, when it comes to how CSS and Javascript are handled/optimized. It’s also to do with how easy it is for someone to use your theme in the context of a very large site with a lot of pages and subsections and plugins, etc. There are challenges with building large magazine/news/company sites that demand more than what more themers are capable of…

I’m really excited about my Vanilla theme (if you can bear with a teeny bit of self-promotion) because, although I’m very slow about it, I’ve focused on nothing other than best-practice, on speed, and on that issue of separating out a proper presentation layer. The result is something I’m having loads of fun with and which I fully expect will take a while to grow on people and make sense to them — at least those who don’t do themes all day long!

I am personally saddened that so much attention is paid to themes like Thesis, which owe their success more to good marketing than to good product (sorry Brian and Chris), and which play games with the GPL (yes, I’m going there again). I hope that the future of WordPress themes is also about the emergence of such good free themes that the “premium” market shrivels up and dies.

Alister Cameron, The Blogologist, is a blogging consultant and designer. If you’re interested in his ideas about the future of WordPress themes make sure you check out The Vanilla Theme.

What Is The Future of WordPress Themes?

Now it’s your turn. Do you think anyone here is on the right track? Are we all missing something right under our noses? Are we all missing some larger point?

When I asked Alex King he just said, “1 word: Carrington“. And Matt Mullenweg thinks the Future of WordPress Themes “will be blue, with rounded corners”. Let’s hear what you have to think.

What do you think the future holds for WordPress themes?

102 thoughts on “The Future of WordPress Themes 2009”

  1. I am new here. Anyway, i love the new wordpress theme and i suggest that you keep on developing themes for all niche. Aside from that, making it seo friendly. Looking forward to it. Thank you so much!

  2. I’m a freelance photographer and also a IT guy..
    I think your discussion has a lot of merit but I’d like to see a broader discussion on Photoblogs. I think you have totally under-estimated that market. Perhaps a separate discussion on this is warranted.

  3. Thanks for this post. When I tried all the themes of wp designers in this blog in I got mostly the answer. Total scripts warning, Script size warning, Total scripts warning, Total size warning. In I found that the themes with exceptions of thesis and thematic load over 6 seconds. And the question which arise in my mind is: If the creme of the creme of wp design is offering themes which got many big scripts and big total size, where is the real deal? I am searching for free wp theme which load fast, is easily customizable and got support.

    1. It is important to differentiate between code size, number of DOM elements and performance issue due to PHP and MySQL.

      Thematic is certainly a lot more complex than Kubrick

      My site isn’t going to win any design awards, I have my functions.php switched off thus 10 full posts on the home page rather than excerpts so probably better to look at a smaller internal page, and be aware a large chunk of what is loaded on a page is often plugin related.

      That being said a Pingdom test on my blog often completes in under 1 second, rarely over 2. Most of the slowdown is because of widgets.

      Performance tips?

      Use Autooptimize plugin
      Memcached object cache
      eAccelerator with WordPress Supercache Plus

      I am still trying to find time to get Thematic using fragments with WordPress Supercache Plus for when cache is invalidated frequently

      I know there are tons of optimization guides that will tell you to strip out plugins, manually hack themes with hard coded values etc, but those are things that end up in the object cache and the whole page will end up cached in whatever supercache variant you opt for.

  4. Every one has their won view but no doubt wordpress helped many to develop blog or site and earn as publisher. Which is great, with time need change and hope all who are supporting it will do their best to reatain the no. 1 position in bloggers.

  5. yes, more and more people will use wordpress for their websites and blogs. In order to get new fresh look, people always finding new wordpress themes.

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