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?

Author: Ian Stewart

Design Director on Design at Automattic.

102 thoughts on “The Future of WordPress Themes 2009”

  1. Man oh man, what a great post. I love it when the top personalities of the WordPress community does some thought sharing.

    The future is at hand and i can’t wait to see how is gonna take the lead in terms of WordPress and other systems for that matter.

  2. Great post Ian. I can agree with something that each of the participants said – although I don’t quite agree with all of it.

    The two strongest issues for me are Theme frameworks (which I think are ready to explode this year) and that of the blurring line between themes and plugins. A quick word about the second:

    I definitely think we’ll see more plugin-like functionality in themes, no doubt about it. In general, this is a good thing and something I’m trying to do more often with my own sites (I used to write custom plugins, now I’m using functions.php).

    However, while this is great with simple functionality that is unlikely to change, care needs to be taken with more complex functionality. It’s all very well for the theme authors to add it to the theme, but they need to keep this updated and secure. In particular, I’m thinking about a story I heard of a theme author including the code for some popluar plugins in the theme, but then not updating them when the original plugins were updated with increased functionality / security patches. I hope we don’t go too far with it.

    In closing, I think that 2009 is going to be a stellar year for WordPress themes, pushing the boundaries even further. It’s a great time to be involved with WordPress as things are moving to another level.

  3. Last years predication set the tone for how we approach web development. Although everyone in my company thought I was crazy for evangelizing WP over other content management systems, I knew these guys were on to something big.

    It turns out after following just about everyone mentioned in this post and using their theme frameworks almost exclusively now that I was right to focus on WordPress as a base for any website/blog.

    I certainly want to thank these guys for making development exciting again…

  4. Corr, no love lost in the WP themes development camp then eh?

    Alister Cameron – it’s all very well saying that theme functionality should be left to the authors but the problem which I have with that personally, (one which I’m sure others share) is that plugins change frequently, or infrequently – neither of which are helpful to a theme developer.

    Why would I want to use a plugin that’s never updated which will break with the next update of wordpress when I could have just written a simple few lines of code into functions.php ?

    At the opposite end of the spectrum, why would I want to risk my theme breaking constantly with a plugin that’s updated every 2 days by an overenthusiastic plugin developer…… when I could have just written a simple few lines of code into functions.php ?

    The problem is having to rely on plugin developers – I don’t like to do it.
    Suppose I build a theme relying on the cforms plugin and then suddenly cforms is kicked out of the wordpress repository and the auto-update is gone? (oh wait that did happen)
    That plugin as far as I’m concerned is dead, and if my theme relied on it then my theme would be dead too.

    I take your point about bloating themes, and agree with it – but in my opinion relying on plugin developers isn’t the answer.

    1. Hi John,

      I’m not Alistar, but I couldn’t help commenting on this. There’s some truth in what you say, but it goes both ways:

      Why would I want to use a plugin that’s never updated which will break with the next update of wordpress when I could have just written a simple few lines of code into functions.php ?

      If you want to write it instead fine, but there’s no guarantee that your simple lines of code won’t break with the next update of WordPress either. You have to then take on the responsibility that was previously the plugin author’s. For a few simple lines of code, fine. But if you start including a few simple lines of code for 20 different things, then that soon becomes a lot of work. If you start to include more advanced functionality, it gets even harder.

      Don’t get me wrong – in general, including more functionality in themes is a good thing! All I’m saying is there’s a danger of going too far that needs to be recognised.

  5. John,

    If you would rather not rely on a plugin that is, in fact, only “a few lines of code” then go for it. I’d do the same. But I’m not talking about those silly little plugins that do barely anything… I’m talking about the big über-popular plugins that do a lot and do it very well. Take HeadSpace2, for example. Or All-In-One-SEO, or Feedsmith, or WP Backup, or reCaptcha, or… need I go on?!

    One thing we will most certainly see happen, thanks to the automated plugin finder/installer/updater is many more people trying many more plugins, but almost immediately a rapid consolidation around a few very important, popular and well maintained ones. I’ll put money on it, err… figuratively.

    I think cforms sucks too (I prefer FilledIn, for example), but do you really think a theme should have an entire “forms manager” in it?!

    I have no problems with the idea that there are certain plugins out there that arguably do stuff that would be better suited residing in a theme – take semantic Sandbox-style markup, for example – and am all for that discussion to take place.

    But I am adamantly going to stand firm on the point that a theme is about presentation, and nothing else. Not seo, not widget management, not spam handling, not anything other than getting stuff to look good/look a certain way.

    Accordingly, I am sweating hard over Vanilla on CSS optimization, HTML optimization, caching, a templating engine, custom/dynamic layouts, a flexible CSS grid system, deep control of markup, etc.

    So, for example, I hate how a lot of WP functions echo formatted code out… take wp_list_pages, for example. So I rebuilt that from the Walker class up. Now in Vanilla you have full template control of page list data. Say you want to add your own LI element in between the first and remaining items… no worries. Say you want to completely mess with the HTML markup… no worries. You’re not limited to what the function parameters allow (if indeed, you can work them out).

    Finally, Vanilla lets you forget about whether you’re in the loop or not. Since it’s using a templating engine it collects all the data, separates it from markup and then pushes that data to the presentation layer. You can use data that’s gathered inside the loop on areas of the page that are *before* the loop! Go try doing that without a templating engine!

    I’m not trying to show off, I’m just wanting to be heard to say that it’s high time WordPress has the same presentation smarts that most other decent CMSs already have. We’re behind on that count. And secondly, this is the conversation to have… over this sort of “architectural” stuff to do with presentation!

    A similarly important conversation point — as pointed out by others, and by me last year and in WordCamp talks — is the need to free widgets from the sidebar and into the entire theme, wherever you want to use them. Widgetize everything!

    Example: – a very cool theme that deserves a lot more attention.

    Thanks for the banter!


    1. Alister – I agree with almost all of your points, no I absolutely would not condone adding something like the all in one SEO plugin to a theme.

      At the sime time though, you’re taking the wrong points from my comment – the point of the cforms example wasn’t that I think themes should have detailed integrated forms, or whether or not that particular plugin is any good. The point I was making was that if a theme depends on a plugin, and something happens like it gets kicked out of the wp-repository… then your theme is in trouble.

      I think that functionality that is specific to the LOOK of the theme and its ROOT funtionality should definitely be built in. For example for a video based site I would like the functionality to everything to do with uploading, editing, arranging my videos to be part of the theme, not a plugin.

      The final point I’ll make is that I personally hate downloading a theme only to find out that “you have to download this, this, and this plugin to make it work”

      I think overall we’re saying the same things, your initial comments in the post just made your opinion of the matter sound extremely black and white… and I’m arguing that there is (within reason) a shade of grey.

      Cheers for replying!

      1. Derek,

        It’s up on a GIT repository, and I need to stick the latest version up there ASAP. I’m a little behind doing that. It’s not finished yet, tho… getting there.

        Would very much value your opinion, mate!

  6. Great job pulling all of this together. ThemeShaper was one of my favorite 2008 discoveries and just continues to be an increasingly invaluable resource for me in ’09.

  7. I think the biggest thing happening this year will be corporate websites making the switch to WordPress and many corporate themes being released to coincide with that shift. I think as one type of theme (magazine/news perhaps?) becomes oversaturated with free premium-level themes, the natural inclination is to find a new niche that requires a totally different layout and focus. 2008 was the year of the magazine/news theme, 2009 will be the year of the corporate themes.

    1. I would have to agree, with the popularity of users generating content and news. We have obviously seen how popular this is with the closing of some major news paper company in the US.

      Why bother to buy and read a magazine when you can get some amazing work online, or find a GPL released theme and create your own!

      1. When they newspapers close, the bloggers will have nothing to utilize. The bloggers that also act as reporters, and are able to cover stories, will be successful. Reporter groups will be the means to the future, but at the expense of lower revenue and less time for creativity ( hard to find amazing work when you also have to do operations ).

        The newspaper industry that is dying could be the worse thing to happen to the blogging free news industry. Unless bloggers somehow get press passes to sporting events or can cover photo/ media licensing fees, look for there to be a rift between the haves and the have-nots.

  8. Thanks a lot for this article, Ian. This is a good summary about the future of WordPress Themes. Concerning WordPress, I think it would be better to create some packs. For example :

    Blog pack (plugin + specific themes)
    Website Pack (plugin + specific themes)
    Forum Pack (plugin + specific themes)
    Portefolio Pack (plugin + specific themes)

    What’s your opinion ?

    1. That’s something that I think will be really big for Drupal later this year and exactly what BuddyPress is for WordPressMu.

      I’ve actually been wondering how to manage “installation profiles” for WordPress.

      1. BuddyPress is presumed to release a version in the following weeks according to talks at WordCamp Denver, that will allow it to be installed on a single install of WordPress.

        This might help to manage personal profiles with out the use of MU.

  9. I am not known as a theme developer, but there is a trend I really wish wasn’t happening.

    The more “features” that get added to themes, the more likely users are going to totally screw up their SEO

    I really hate themes that add features that should either be part of core, or plugins.
    Such themes frequently cause conflicts because they don’t provide a total solution, yet frequently are advertised as if they do.

    #1 fallacy in WP theme marketing – there is no such thing, to my knowledge as a fully SEO optimized theme.

    1. Then you have been hiding under a rock Andy. Thesis markets its self more than anything else as a theme with “amazing SEO” – he’s even got Darren Rowse talking about it.

      1. As it happens possibly 50% of the sites in the last year that I have had to notify about messed up meta tags were running Thesis.
        Thesis covers some of the basics, as do plugins like All-in-one, but that doesn’t mean they are a substitute for actually understanding what you are doing.

      2. Andy,
        You make an excellent point … messed up meta descriptions are hard as hayull to get right sometimes, because of increased number of possibilities for the output. For instance:

        I’ve written a function that will output your excerpt as your meta description first, and if none exists, will try to generate one for you based on the post content. But what if the post is made up of images, or shortcode? yep … you get a screwed up meta description.

        But those kinds of things will get better as we learn. SEO is, by it’s very nature, a theme function, since the theme rests on the presentation layer of WP. I think the more themes attempt to make SEO a no-brainer, the better off we are.

      3. Nanthan that is certainly a function that should be a part of a plugin, and there are plenty that provide that functionality, probably too many, with a confusing mess of other “features” built in for good measure.

        One of the biggest reasons however is fundamental. WP Theme designers generally:-

        1. are not specialist coders, thus write inefficient, heavy code
        2. are not SEOs
        (note: lines like “TITLE and H1 Content Should Match” are reasonable proof of the 2nd point)

      4. Andy, I am an SEO and WP Theme developer and lines like like “title and h1 content should match” were taught to me by Ammon Johns.
        I assume you know who he is – so are you calling him out too?

      5. John I can’t see any evidence of that either in his own sites, the site of the company he works for, or his client sites.
        If Ammon has said that, he might well have been talking to a bunch of newbies, or people using a platform that can’t be optimized more effectively.

        Also I can’t see it in your own sites such as this page.

        Title tag “Web Design Services in Worthing West Sussex, Lyrical Media”
        H1 “Web Design”

        It is why almost every SEO tutorial for WordPress out there recommends some form of title tag plugin.

        There are multiple reasons why you want to seperate the 2, but from a design perspective (lets ignore SEO totally), you are limited in number of charaters for a title tag, and you are not limited for a blog post title on the page, and that might not necessarily be your primary call to action.

        If you want to be geeky, some of the options you need to consider are:-

        1. Ability to customize title tag
        2. Ability to customize H1, which may be in a much smaller display size somewhere on the page, or styled using an image with CSS (e.g. header logo) – it can be more or less than what can be displayed in SERPs
        3. Call to action heading – could possibly use h2, be very long or short, and split test. It might not necessarily be used as anchor text for a link, or if it is, ensure it is nofollow, with a link before it with correct anchor text within the source.
        4. Heading to be used as internal link text to the article
        5. Heading to be used in RSS
        6. Call to action in RSS (not necessarily the same)
        7. Headline to be used for Social bookmarking submissions to be added into buttons, and possibly rotated. (could be rotated, different for every service, etc)

        I only dabble with hacking web design and programming.
        There is a huge difference between doing SEO on your own sites, or where you have some ownership, and working with clients who are using rogue CMS systems that you can’t customize which SEO professionals do on a day to day basis.
        Thus I don’t claim to be an SEO expert either 😉

      6. No, not teaching a bunch of n00bs I’m afraid, rather; working together on the SEO for Norwich Union and Visit Wales – not exactly low profile customers.

        As far as I’m concerned the quotes which you took from my site are a perfect example – they ARE mirrored. Did I repeat the entire title tag in the h1? No of course not. Did I repeat the most important key phrase at the start of the title tag and at the start of the H1? Absolutely.

        This is exactly the practice that the company he works for use too.

        I don’t think Ammon is too concerned about optimising hos own sites tbh, his reputation gets him more than enough business.

        Oh and just to be clear, calls to action and social bookmarking aren’t SEO… they’re conversion analysis and marketing…

      7. But that is exactly what Nathan, who sells SEO optimized themes and wants to include more SEO functionality is advocating against, very clearly in this post.

        Many “SEO Optimized” themes contain lots of non-standard code in the header that then prevents fairly common SEO plugins from working, thus you end up having to modify the themes, which is what I would really prefer to avoid.

        Optimizing a site so that you can influence anchor text used by others is SEO
        The startups offering PDF and Powerpoint embeds as an example do this much better than video startups.

      8. Andy,
        That suggestion (from a beginners guide to SEO, btw) has nothing to do with themes, rather, it has to do with recommending against using plugins like All in One SEO Pack to keyword stuff the title tag (which is fairly common practice with AiOSEO, in my experience, and fairly annoying).

        My point was that if a theme can do all of the things (at least the important things) that these “common” SEO plugins do, then we place the functionality into the correct layer — the presentation layer. I’m not saying that SEO plugins are bad (my opinion has changed slightly since writing that post), I’m just saying that it is a more *natural* function for a theme than a plugin. A plugin/theme + instruction manual for basic usage and justification is obviously the best route, since as you said — “[plugins] are [not] a substitute for actually understanding what you are doing”.

        PS — The point of H1 and TITLE matching was to encourage users (especially beginners) the importance of a consistent message to the search engines in what are the two most important SEO aspects of markup. It’s hard to beat the consistency of being identical. But obviously (and Joost de Valk actually schooled me on this in the wp-hackers mailing list) the two can be slightly different — but they should communicate a VERY consistent message.

        I’m not above learning, so if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me like a gentleman.

      9. Just read the post by Nathan (+ the related posts) and I’m not sure which part you disagree with – I completely and utterly agree that having the h1 on the logo or name of your site is a huge waste of time.
        It’s practice that’s really annoyed me ever since I started customising wordpress themes.

        I also agree that having the blog name at the beginning of the title tag is a waste of time, and I too choose to move it to the end with blogs.

        I do see the part where he says in blog “the title and the h1 should match” but he doesn’t specify whether or not he means word-for-word, or in the “mirroring” method as we were discussing above.

        One thing not mentioned is that in his post which might have been relevant was that I always personally use h2’s for post titles on the index/category pages, but an h1 for the post title on the single.php page template – this is something that isn’t built into wordpress by default because of the whole logo/h1 thing.

        In fact nathan made another interesting point above which I’d missed previously which was to use the post except as the meta description – is this effective? It sounds like it should be, but in reality, absolutely not – how often do the first 150 characters of your post both summarise it and use all the key words which you’re targetting? Unless you’re a seasoned writer for print rather than a blogger, then the chances are – not often.

        This is why when I’m specifically writing a post which I want to rank well, I’ll always fill out the all-in-one-seo custom fields at the bottom of a post entry.

        And THAT (finally) brings us back to our starting point, which was that the plugin does the work, not the theme.


        I don’t know. There are so many different ways of doing everything; the same layout can be CSS’d at least 5 different ways, and the same SEO results can be achieved at least 5 different ways too. The problem is that everyone thinks their way is best (myself included I’m sure).

        In my opinion SEO is incredibly simple, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is a) pumping up their own ego, or b) trying to rip you off.

        More an more these days I focus less on coding in favour of SEO and more on coding in favour of web standards, because by some stroke of luck – adhering strictly to web standards and writing semantic code, by it’s very nature, makes code well suited to search engines.

        Good code + good content = SEO win.

      10. @JohnONolan
        Keep in mind that you can set a custom excerpt on posts. The fallback (the automatic excerpt that WP generates) only comes into play if you DON’T make your own excerpt.

      11. From experience I can say that generating meta descriptions for your site is a very, very bad idea and is one of the most toxic suggestions in the SEO world right now.

      12. Matt, thanks for your input – your strong statement backed up by several very good points really clarified the whole thing for me. I hate people who are vague, so frankly you’re like a breath of fresh air!

      13. For the “TITLE and H1 Content Should Match” thought, I think it was meant to be contextually. My feeling is that if there is anything you should write for SE’s, it is the Title. While the H1 is written for the reader. Both containing your target keywords.

        I have not reviewed most of the theme frameworks from the gentlemen in this post, but on the whole, a majority of themes out in the wild are disastrous. Even the themes that are self-proclaimed SEO nut-busters. It is getting to the point when I read the claim, I shrug and move on.

        Wrapping the logo/sitename in an H1 is just plain wrong.

        Meta Descriptions? Wouldn’t say that they are toxic, but the SEO’s who perpetuate the belief that they are valuable just to prey on the unwitting, then they have lost my respect.

        Then again, when you get the warning messages in Google Webmaster Tools about all of your metas are too short & similar … it does make you wonder.

        Of course all of this is probably a moot point to begin with. No matter how optimized a theme can possibly be, it will fall into the hands of Joe Blogger who knows nothing of how to write effective titles, headings, excerpts or the real king of SEO … the_content().

  10. Definitely a great list of thoughts on the upcoming year. Thanks for putting this together, Ian, and thanks to everyone for contributing!

    I would agree with Andrew, that HTML 5 themes will start popping up this year. Andrea’s definitely on it when she predicts WPMU/BuddyPress themes this year, too. I also look forward to more niche themes this year, as Justin mentioned.

    I think child themes are definitely interesting, and have a lot of potential, but until WordPress allows for a few more caveats to how they operate, I don’t think we’ll see as many developers moving toward using theme. Definitely something to keep an eye on, though.

    I’ll have to put together a post with some of my thoughts, since I don’t want to blow up your comments with too much text!

  11. Pure and elegant, simplistic designs. The designs I came across last year were all overcrowded. Hopefully, this year things would change for the better. I’m yet to see a design that is simple, eligant and classy at the same time professional.

    Eddie Gear

  12. I think that the core module, and changes to the core WordPress, would be the best indicator of where the themes would be able to go to.

    The more “features” that get added to themes, the more likely users are going to totally screw up their SEO
    – Andy Beard

    This shouldn’t be anywhere close to the situation. The CMS, as well as many blog platforms, has problems being looked at as bad in the eyes of Google for many reasons. But the SEO concept needs to be looked at in a secondary view from the actual means of content-development within the blog.

    Justin Tadlock comes through in the clutch again with a future feature idea that many people have been wondering about: Giving users widget space in multiple parts of the theme. I would jump further into the argument about giving the post data space an optional quadrant function, which would allow widgets and functions to be added to particular quadrants ( like left-side photos, drop-down menus etc. ).

    There is a need of consistency between the plugin-developers, theme developers, and WordPress core developers themselves. In all honesty, many of these ideas are already being implemented on some level, but there hasn’t been a coalition of people to define this movement nor are there enough people in the movement to define it themselves ( I talk of expanding the use of widgets / features ).

    What I would like to see for 2009 is the creation of themes outside of the pure-html framework altogether. Has anyone ever ventured into making a light cool full-featured Mootools theme? Just pondering… Maybe AIR or flash? Asking for too much:)

  13. I forgot to mention one important thing… sorry to monopolize, but this conversation is dear to my heart:

    Most theme designers are not really creating themes (read: frameworks or engines), they’re creating skins.

    I want to see us WordPress theme people put this child theme thing to bed for good with the strong point that *most* theme designers should NOT design new themes… they should instead chose an existing framework and design skins for it (aka child themes).

    Most themes in the theme repository are rearely anything more than minor changes to the default theme’s HTML markup and a different CSS file and images. That’s it.

    In my strong opinion, these should NOT be released as themes. They should be released as child themes of an existing base theme (i.e. framework).

    It follows that child themes should be able to take their place in the official WordPress theme repository (so they can be, in future, loaded automatically into WP like plugins can now).

    In my view then, we’ll see a selection of high-quality, community built open-source GPL licensed base themes (frameworks) and a whole host of designers releasing (quickly and easily) child themes.

    Good news is that if they design child themes for Vanilla they can — to my mind — charge for them, because they won’t need to contain any PHP calls to WordPress function, since they need only be HTML template files, CSS, images and JS.

    There I go plugging Vanilla again!


    1. Most themes in the theme repository are rarely anything more than minor changes to the default theme’s HTML markup and a different CSS file and images … these should NOT be released as themes. They should be released as child themes of an existing base theme (i.e. framework).

      Here. Here.

      1. And seconded. 😀

        Doesn’t anyone remember the early days when that’s what a WP theme *was*? Just a stylesheet and some graphics?

        Then we asked to be able to manipulate the HTML, and we got it. We also got a deluge of themes based on Kubrick that really are little more than a stylesheet & image change.

        Now we’re coming full circle again.

      2. I am experiencing a distinct feeling of deja vu.

        I get the feeling, from that ancient forum thread and the way the themes repository is run, that Automattic would rather have 1200 ‘themes’ on offer at .org than a dozen ‘frameworks’ with a hundred ‘skins’ or ‘child themes’ apiece. It just sounds more impressive when you’re trying to hook in a new client.

        Regardless, this year everyone and his dog will be trying to develop the Killer Framework which becomes the standard and accords its developer so much power and influence that Automattic are forced either to hire him at a vastly inflated salary or attempt to sue him into oblivion 😉 Except, of course, that there will be so many competing frameworks that none will gain any real traction, and the majority of beginners will continue churning out bastardized versions of Kubrick.

  14. Andy, you know I love you, but I’m not sure what it is you’re saying here.

    Are you telling every web publisher that they need to spend the money I did (and you too, likely) over the course of 10 years to compete? That’s just silly.

    Thesis rocks SEO-wise because the code is clean and separate from the design elements. That’s really all that’s required for SEO-optimized code (and yet no one else delivers it). The rest is handled by smart title optimization, which Thesis provides without additional (and unsupported) plugins.

    Everything I’ve ever bitched about as a full-time online entrepreneur is baked into Thesis. It’s not a WordPress design, it’s a complete solution many people didn’t realize they needed, and yet now can’t live without.

    1. Brian lets hug first 😉

      I will email you some specifics but just look how many SEO bloggers using Thesis are still using SEO plugins despite claims that they are not needed and should all be switched off.

      1. I will just clarify here to say that the only SEO plugins which I use are the all-in-one and google sitemap generator.

        As far as I’m concerned all the rest can be taken out back and shot.

  15. I must say I’m very surprised that NO ONE is reflecting on the fact that themes generally is poorly coded for the ability of using different languages (gettext). Far from everyone is using WordPress on English spoken sites! Theme developers needs to get much better on this.

    1. I sympathise, but have you tried telling theme developers how to do it? I had such a hellish time trying to figure out how to internationalise a theme a few years ago that I gave up in despair. There was nothing on Codex, nobody on the support forums knew anything about it and the only resource seemed to be the wp-polyglots list. By the time I was wrestling with poEdit I was sick of the whole thing. I’m not surprised most theme developers don’t even bother trying.

  16. Child Themes!

    That is where things are heading – with a parent framework. I’m already using child themes which are much more powerful once you get a framework that serves your purpose. Worpress as a fully fledged CMS is far more possible this way, which is where we’re ultimately heading: more than just blogging.

  17. Hmm, I can’t help but wonder how nice it would be if you and Justin Tadlock would jump in bed together and merge your frameworks into a single monster framework.

    Start off by calling it ‘HybridMatic’ – end by taking over the world.

    Simple really 🙂

  18. I like the diversity of opinions and it drives home the point that there is more than one way to do things. I have to agree I would like to see the trend from “everything and the kitchen sink” to basics of presentation and layout in themes with plugins and other core WP functionality taking on the extendability in terms of functionality.

  19. I wanted to comment earlier, but I figured I’d let the SEO debate die down a bit. But, since the subject was brought up, I’ll have to agree with Nathan about SEO being a theme function. Obviously, to some it’s a plugin function. Either way, SEO is not really about who has the best theme/plugin. It’s about the user’s content. The only person that can truly make a site rank well in search engines is the end user. Good, quality content is something we can do nothing about for our users.

    I honestly believe theme frameworks will take off this year. Many WordPress users are DIYers, but they hate losing modifications when the theme is updated. Frameworks offer one solution to that. From my experience, this has gone over fairly well with Hybrid theme users.

    One other thing that will play an important role here is the use of custom page templates. You could give users 100 options to set their front page up and they’d still want more. Custom page templates allow near unlimited amount of control over front page elements. It’s also a reason I package 15 page templates with Hybrid — to show how easily they can be used to transform not just a page but an entire site. Don’t like how something functions? Create a new template.

    Now, on to BuddyPress. Anyone that wants to hop on the BuddyPress train right now can gain a huge following very quickly. Basically, since there’s no competition, you could rule the BuddyPress world.

  20. I absolutely agree with the framework prognosis put forward by some of the above writers, and want to direct your attention to the most impressive – and free – Atahualpa theme, which – featuring more than 200 admin options and hooks (and, yes, of course it also has a SEO admin page) – has pushed the boundaries of upgradable flexibility to the max:

  21. I don’t think blue color-scheme and rounded corners would still impress anyone, I noticed now people tend to actually come back to neat and slightly outlined square boxes, but it remains a matter of taste..

    Most important for a theme is to be simple, easy to use, easy to navigate, functioning well yet be memorable despite its simplicity.

  22. Thanks for a very interesting post. I see that a lot of people feel that frameworks are the way to go. However, for that to happen, frameworks must be standardized. If everyone builds his own framework, then thats not going to happen.

    In addition, more people should use frameworks: what is the probability today that I will find a theme I like (in terms of the looks & features) that uses a framework? Nill.

  23. wordpress themes community is different from wordpress theme business …

    things happen different in these two areas … and Thesis and Chris will emerge as leaders in the Business field and as a community, Justin is leading with Hybrid … 🙂

    2009, will be a year of more user freedom on themes … themes should be “facilitators” for users … not providers, fully ..

  24. wow, you guys are really into this 🙂

    I just want to thank you for those themes. whatever layer you use for your codes, it’s all smooth and easy. I just love wordpress.

  25. I really like the new themes, I think themes should be keep being developed. There have been some really great ones made.

  26. Presentation and function should be kept separate. Matt Mullenweg is right.

    Plugins are the way forward not top-heavy frameworks.

    Frameworks are flavour of the month but will be old news within the year and people will move back to basics plugins and themes.

    Why would one tie open-source WordPress up in proprietary knots?

    Why turn lean and mean into fat and dumpy?

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