The Next Chapter for Themes

Open book

Every few months I read a post about how the WordPress theme business has shrunk. The authors always reach a similar conclusion. Sales have dwindled. Competition has increased. Putting food on the table, finding a niche and standing out is near impossible.

It may not be so impossible though. With a new editing interface on the horizon, the theme landscape will change in a big way. That editing interface, and eventually better site customization, means we (those who create themes) will all have a chance to redefine what a theme is and means to people who use WordPress. It will be new, fertile ground to discover – the next chapter for themes. We just can’t make the same mistakes we’ve made before.

A long time ago, especially in Internet years, you could sell a collection of well-designed WordPress themes and make a living. These became known in the WordPress space as premium themes. What made them “premium” was loosely defined. They often sported a unique look or carried interesting features. As a consumer, premium themes always seemed more special to me. They took risks. That runs against what we say on the Theme Team at, where we do nothing but create WordPress themes: The only difference between a free theme and a premium one is the price.

As more and more theme shops sprang up, the feature race began. Many themes became as complex as WordPress itself. Designers and developers had less time to experiment because we spent more time glancing over our shoulders. What’s the next trend? What’s this other theme shop doing?

To correct for the complexity, the larger theme ecosystem became obsessed with standards. Like making sure a theme did things the WordPress way or always met “best practices.” The web industry as a whole also continues to obsess over and rely on build tools and frameworks, sometimes to a fault. They should solve technical hurdles for us. But do they? Sometimes they do at the expense of our customers. Make no mistake, I’m not arguing against best practices or tools. We do the same thing. However, the status quo, even if it means well, can blind you to what’s important.

What’s important, you ask? Our customers. Doing the invisible things that make their experience its best. Focusing on accessibility, performance and security. Making sure the the small screens look just as good as the large screens. Gutenberg, the project name for the new editing interface, will make one theme become many. A customer using a theme will be able to bend it many different ways – turning the focal point of the theme from its capabilities to its design.

Customers want their sites to look just right. They don’t want to learn a theme. So when the new age of themes begins, promise me you’ll focus on what they want. You won’t get distracted by the many different ways to extend this new editor or become mired in all the ways to prevent the abuse of customizing it.

This matters. Your customers need you. And you’ll stand out and put more food on your table.

Photo courtesy of Hermann.

Author: David A. Kennedy

I work as a Design Director at Automattic on Jetpack, focusing on the front end experience.

5 thoughts on “The Next Chapter for Themes”

  1. Well articulated and thought-out piece on what’s to come in the theme landscape. Even though I think with Automattic offering premium themes as part of Jetpack subscription has put some pressure on theme authors.

  2. Are you sure this has nothing to do with the rise of the “flatpack” site, where drag and drop makes it possible ot avoid having a designer at all?

    There will always be three groups of buyers, it seems to me.

    Bespoke – want everything hand crafted and designed
    Themed – happy to work within the basic shape and design of a template
    Low budget – want flatpack fast generated sites that require little coding

    Depending on the designer’s market place, they will use whatever technology they need to to achieve the result.

    Bang on on “the customer is right” though….

    1. Are you sure this has nothing to do with the rise of the “flatpack” site, where drag and drop makes it possible ot avoid having a designer at all?

      That’s a good separation of customer types. Other market forces will always put pressure on WordPress and themes as a whole. I’d say that Gutenberg has a chance to combine some of what people are used to and like from “themed” sites and “flatpack” sites, as you call them. And someone who wants everything “bespoke” probably isn’t going to consider buying a premium theme. Also, no matter what budget someone brings, a designer somewhere helped create something. Hopefully, they’re listening to their customer. 🙂

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