The Promise of Gutenberg: Themes as More Design, Less Baggage

Gutenberg promises the vision you have takes shape in the editor, instead of something you can’t see. Why’s that so powerful?

Picture frames stacked up, showing different color borders.

It happened again.

I sat with a potential WordPress themer, who wanted to know how to get started the right way with theme development. He’s a user experience professional by day, looking to up his coding skills.

He pointed to the WordPress editor, and said something like, “I understand HTML and CSS, but I’m not sure how to make something beyond putting it in there.”

We’ve all been there. Having that vision of what you want your site to look like, and not knowing how to get there. Gutenberg promises the vision you have takes shape in the editor, instead of some PHP file or a special plugin that isn’t truly native to WordPress. That’s powerful! It shifts much of the customization control from the themer to the person using the theme.

Today, if you’re trying to get into WordPress development, you might start by tweaking an existing theme. Then making a child theme. Then diving into a custom theme. My user-experience professional friend did just that. He’s already customized a theme and made a child theme. But the whole world of specialized WordPress theme knowledge can intimidate even professional web workers. Imagine how it feels to new users of WordPress who have never built a website before?

But with Gutenberg, people – professionals and beginners alike – can begin building what they want. Now, Gutenberg will no doubt need its own specialized knowledge. But at its heart, it will transform what a theme means to WordPress. They can become more about pure design, powered by the simplicity of CSS.

You might be saying, “But you can already use CSS now to change a theme’s design.” That’s true, but much of a theme’s structure gets determined by and locked away in template files. Hard to change unless you start learning how to “theme.” But with much of that structure and markup becoming blocks that can be added to a theme, it becomes easier for people who aren’t themers to see different possibilities.

Say goodbye to lots of custom widgets and theme options. Oh, and to limiting page templates. The future of WordPress themes can become more about empowering users to work on their vision instead of always having to learn how to “theme.” It starts in the editor and not with the theme.

Photo by Dmitri Popov.

Author: David A. Kennedy

I work as a Theminator (that's my official title) at the ever-awesome Automattic. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ftw.

9 thoughts on “The Promise of Gutenberg: Themes as More Design, Less Baggage”

  1. I am ready for it! I got that same question all the time. “I know HTML/CSS, but I want to customize your theme even more, how do I do this?” So, I created a course for these people using underscores.me that showed how a WP theme is laid out and how to add features to customize. People love it. There will be opportunities to show how to use Gutenberg to its fullest in the near future!

  2. I share the concerns of people who worry that this could turn WordPress into solely a blogging tool like Medium, rather than a flexible cms for a wide variety of types of websites. As someone who makes WordPress themes with _s, Foundation, ACF and so on I am unsure how it will affect my employment.

    1. Change is almost always tough. If anything, Gutenberg should widen the types of sites WordPress could be used for because the content area becomes less one dimensional. It’s not just about text anymore, and crafting anything beyond text isn’t just locked away to those with technical knowledge.

      As for being a maker if the theme world, I do think the notion of “themes” will change, but people and sites will always need someone to help create meaningful experiences. So hang in there, and keep making stuff and helping people.

  3. I’m still supporting that the content should stay in the editor (Gutenberg) while the form should be left to the theme or into the customizer. Too many style options in the blocks (eg. colors, font sizes) and the user experience will easily become overwhelming. Hope we can keep that in mind while evolving the Gutenberg project.

  4. I have no doubt that Gutenberg will change the landscape of WordPress themes, eventually. Developers who embrace Gutenberg within their theme catalogues will definitely stand out among the rest. Although I believe that adoption, particularly commercially, will take quite a long time. Take a look at themes on ThemeForest (and other marketplaces); so many themes still do not support the Customizer for theme options. Lazy development galore. 🙈

    Maybe Gutenberg will give boutique theme shops an opportunity to capitalize on.

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