WordPress Themes in 2012

The other day I was asked over dinner what I thought WordPress themes were going to look like in 2012. The big themes and ideas — the future! — that sort of thing. It’s something I love talking about and sharing (obviously). I see two big trends making their way through the WordPress community. Here’s what I said.

Lighter Themes

Man, WordPress theme options. People love arguing about them don’t they? This is the year we start to say goodbye to them. Or some of them, rather. Theme options (and in many cases what is certainly theme bloat) will start to be pruned away this year. That doesn’t mean NO OPTIONS EVER! — though sometimes pruning away needless options leaves you with none for sure — but instead, just enough options. Sometimes it’s no settings. Sometimes it’s two. Or twelve. Whatever the number the big trend will be not too many, not too few, and just enough.

But lighter themes will also mean smaller themes. Themes that meet more particular needs and “just work.” Not niche themes (A pony theme! A badger theme!) always particularly — though sometimes this will look more like more niche themes — but more problem-solving themes. You have a publishing problem (I like to publish big images! I like to write long posts without any images!) and this theme fixes it.

Better Designed Themes

In a way this goes hand in hand with the idea of lighter themes. Like millions of other geeks I received the Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs bio for Christmas. And like many other people I read it (it’s huge!) and was inspired by Steve Jobs’ lifelong passion for product design — both inside and out. I’m guessing we’ll start to see that same passion brought to WordPress themes this year. Sure, there have been beautiful themes in the past but I feel like there’s an extra gust of wind at our backs this year. And it’s not like technology is working against us. The acceptance of CSS3 and web fonts make it even easier to bring an Apple-like level of refinement to the work that we do. Likewise with the backside of the fence. The core WordPress default theme project that brings us a new default theme every year along with the many framework and starter theme projects in the larger community mean every project gets what I’ll call a 1000-hour head start. That’s the time frame of development and iteration that stands behind your WordPress theme projects now. Development and iteration that you don’t have to do.

It’s a great time to be making WordPress themes and shaping the web. I’m looking forward to it being a beautiful one.

What Do You Think?

Do you agree? Do these two predictions sound like baloney? There’s a comments form below. Bring it.

24 thoughts on “WordPress Themes in 2012”

  1. I honestly still don’t find that I have that 1,000 hour head start—apart from what Toolbox already gives me. Using Toolbox has meant that I now have a fantastic start point, but I really find that I start at too blank a slate with each project.

    I think I’m finding that things aren’t as ‘modular’ as I’d like them—and as I’ve come to love and expect in the jQuery realm these days. It seems like every time you open Hacker News, you see this perfect plugin for images or sliders or parallax scrolling or whatever, that you just drop in place and use. I’m finding that I still need to reinvent the wheel a lot with WordPress.

    My two most recent examples are evidence enough for me: creating a site for a band, and one for an illustrator. Getting a good looking, well functioning, non-Flash-based audio player integrated into Toolbox took a very long time for me. Likewise, having a portfolio slideshow gallery for the illustrator has taken more time than I would have expected.

    So why don’t I use themes that are already packaged for specific purposes?

    Good question. I also find that themes aren’t coded in a standardized way. Toolbox makes heavy use of the get_template_part(), for example, but I don’t see that pattern all that often in other themes. Theme Foundry uses a pattern, Made by Raygun uses a pattern, TwentyTen/Eleven use a different pattern, etc etc, so I often find that it’s easier to keep re-inventing the wheel with Toolbox, than shift to a different theme’s structure/paradigm.

    If I had a 2012 goal wish

    My wish for 2012, it would be for all themes to start using loop.php, get_template_part() and CSS files in a consistent way. Then, I think we could truly get to the place where these smaller parts are reusable. At the moment, the overhead involved in learning a different theme’s structure just isn’t worth the payoff at the end.

    And finally, an example:

    I was working on the website for that illustrator I mentioned earlier. I found a theme that would do almost exactly what I wanted it to do. But! It had some fatal detractions: 1) it didn’t use get_template_part() at all, instead it chose to overload the loop/index.php files, 2) it used a weird CSS structure with resets and ‘defaults’ confusingly mixed in, 3) it had a very complex grid system baked in. So in the end, although I found a theme that could have easily met almost all of my needs right out of the box, I just couldn’t bring myself to use it because of the overhead of having to figure out and learn their structure.

    I’m not suggesting that all themes should be coded exactly the same, but I am saying that it would be extremely beneficial if all/most themes used get_template_part(), the loop, CSS files, etc, in a consistent way.

  2. Lighter themes sounds great to me!

    Along with less theme options it would be nice to see less features built into themes. There are so many themes out there with poorly implemented breadcrumbs, slideshows, and other functionality that doesn’t really need to be built in when there are so many awesome plugins they could integrate instead.

    And with all the time they save by choosing established plugins instead of rolling their own, they can concentrate on sweet designs instead 🙂

  3. While I think both of your predictions are likely, I can’t get over the fact that currently in the WordPress theme world more features = more sales / users.

    Seeing as I run a theme shop (shameless plug: http://cyberchimps.com), I spend hours every week tracking other theme shops, and studying all the different theme market places (ThemeForest, WordPress.org/.com, WooThemes, ElegantThemes, etc).

    The biggest trend I see that few people talk about is better content management features baked in the themes, such as feature sliders, portfolio pages, and the big one being drag & drop. To a designer these features are seen as bloat, and as a programmer these features are seen as even more bloat, but to a user they can mean a better more personalized theme. Even ElegantThemes recently released a drag & drop WordPress theme.

    More and more people are using WordPress as a CMS, and a blog a distant second. There are some WordPress themes on ThemeForest that do not even link to the blog as a primary demo / menu item and instead focus on slider pages, portfolio pages, gallery pages, etc. If you look at what is happening on ThemeForest you see a completely different side of the WordPress theme world than what you see on WordPress.org or .com. It is probably the most competitive theme market place right now, and the top themes today are the top themes from last year. The only difference is those themes have baked in dozens of new features turning them into all-in-one type solutions. If those same themes took there 200+ option pages, and shrank them down to 25 options they would likely cease to exist in the eyes of ThemeForest consumers and go from making hundreds of thousands a year to $10k a year.

    While I’m not supporting the ThemeForest model, it is curious to note that what those theme developers are doing actually works.

    Yet if you look then at the theme shops such as my own, or the biggest of them all being WooThemes they cater to a much different market than the themes on ThemeForest.

    There is always a divide when it comes to how people actually use a product, and what the designers / developers think people want. For now, unfortunately I foresee far more bloated all-in-one type themes outselling light themes. With that said, light themes will have a place in the market, and I think we will see more of them this year, but I don’t see them competing with the all-in-one themes, they’re different markets for different users.

  4. Lighter themes would be great, there’s some appalling theme bloat out there at the moment. I do tend towards more minimalistic design and I’ll be interested to see the new official theme with the 3.4 release.

  5. Less options is something plugin developers need to learn too. But whether it is theme options or plugin options, all the bloat currently out there cripples usability of WordPress for clients. This is a shame since the core has done a lot of work recently in this area. I spend a lot of time disabling and removing features and options page, so that clients can see what is important.

    One pet hate of mine is the way themes (especially so-called frameworks) create big ugly extra icon-ised menu items in the dashboard, as if they think they are mor important than anything else! Themes will nearly always need some options, but they should be in their right place – a submenu called ‘theme options’ inside Appearance. Again usability is at stake here.

  6. Unlike many others I have only one Theme in repository “Shell Lite”. The reason why its called lite is exactly what Ian is talking about, however lite does not mean featureless, or unfinished work.

    Less is more and speaking of users on WPORG that’s exactly what they’re looking for. (IMO)

    Developing lighter Themes will also result less “issues” and updates too. WPORG users are mostly folks with beginners to moderate knowledge of WordPress and if they see something complicated, they will most likely abandon the Theme and switch to an easier one.

    If something more complex is needed I always refer that to a plugin.

    ThemeForest works (for authors only) at least that’s what I hear, however majority of Themes are over-bloated junk (with an exception to some people that I know).

    There’s not a single month where client approach me with TF Theme and sometimes it’s not even worth fixing the issues. Here’s an example https://plus.google.com/u/0/108229091043655314387/posts/2UPpfJvR7ai Great looking Theme with poor coding is simply not enough and it will never be.

    @Trent I am just presenting the other side of TF, that’s all 🙂

    My 2¢ 🙂

  7. If the making & modifying of themes becomes simpler, that will encourage more folks to try their hand at it, themselves. There will then be a growing inventory of themes, if the learning-curve or price-of-entry is lowered.

    Gnarly theme-technology will inhibit folks from messing with it. Gnarlification will act to suppress the theme-inventory. There have been some aspects of this … and there has been some ‘noise’ about it, and policy changes in response.

    Since we have lots of themes, and it is child’s play to install a whole bunch of them on WordPress and then play with them and even actually study how they do different things, it seems unlikely that any one paradigm is going to retire all the others.

    A large diversity of Themes exists, and there is no sign of any purge or compelling abandonment of certain design-philosophies, in favor of any one ‘winner’.

    When I found Atahualpa, I was very happy with what it offered. I also learned to write HTML by hand, in the process of fixing what FrontPage Express produced, long ago.

    Now, I go for an un-clever theme, with low overhead, since I now know the parts & pieces & methods of Themes, better. And we have the Child Theme mechanism now … and it was failure to fit with Child theme methods that actually moved me away from some of the earlier high-option themes.

    More versus less options, or turn-key versus user-control solutions, have been dichotomies within all our technologies, all along. The fashions ebb & flow, ideas come in & go out of vogue.

    You will find this argument over options versus simplicity in the late-19th C. literature discussing different models of steam engines, virtually verbatim. Scientist, likewise, engage in this battle: it often dominates their dialog at some points in history, and it is quite current now in certain high-profile Computer Modelling fields.

    It’s more a matter of trying to guess where the fashions will be next year, whether it’s cooler to be seen grappling with the complexities of choices & options, or having the ‘proper’ turn-key product.

    Above all, the theme-game is a “buyer’s market”.

  8. I like! I agree that theme options need to stay; things such as color pickers for instance. But options such as, “Place your Google anayltics code here” when there’s a ton of great plugins to do it for you seems a bit like bloat to me.

    I’m getting into designing WordPress themes and from my research, the problem with most themes is they’re not really good quality at all, have bad coding and layouts and design.

    I do hope you’re right about this coz theme development could get really exciting!

  9. Great post. I agree that I’d like to see lighter themes. Also, I expect that we’ll start seeing a LOT more Responsive themes, and hopefully some new themes using bits of HTML5 and CSS3.

  10. Can I be honest and say this community is so… overwhelming. I’ve been dabbling with WordPress very lightly for several years, and everytime I try to come back to it I’m even more overwhelmed than the last time. I wish there was more attention to newcomers. WordPress, Thematic, Automatic, now this thing called BuddyPress? Are you guys intentionally trying to keep newbies out or am I missing some kind of amazing beginners resource buried somewhere in the Internet?

    1. I was overwhelmed when I started and I think the community was probably even simpler then so that’s a valid complaint. If you’re a newcomer I would recommend just keeping at it and asking lots of questions on the support forums.

      1. Thank you for your understanding. I was asking a lot of questions on the forums when I started using Thematic, and the help I did get was really great. But that’s just Thematic and I stilll don’t think I’m getting that right, plus I’m overwhelmed by WordPress as a whole. I even looked into courses but the only thing I’ve found is “how to make a blog post, how to add users, etc. I want to understand the framework and custom develop for it. I think if you had been following it before it’s much easier to keep up with all the changes and newly introduced projects like BuddyPress and probably tons more… But I joined the party within the last year and I still have no idea what’s going on :S

    2. I’d agree with Ian Stewart and say that I was a bit overwhelmed when I started too, but there are so many blogs that are really handy for newbies to WordPress pros that can help out a lot.

      1. Hi Vicky,

        Here’s the best list I’ve found of WP resources:


        Most of the sites I go to for help are listed here and you’ll find it a bit hard to find basic information on these. A lot of the content is intermediate to advanced and up.

        In terms of using frameworks, there’s much less coverage unfortunately. I’ve been looking but yeah, apart from reading a frameworks documentation there isn’t much to go on. If you find any child themes or themes based on a framework you can use that to try understand how it works as well if you’re up to it; a bit of reverse-coding you might say.

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