Universal themes: Some ideas

With the Full Site Editing project well underway, theme developers need to be thinking about what the future holds for themes. 

Why block themes?

To take advantage of the Site Editor, themes need to be built out of blocks – this is why we need block themes. Block themes are an entirely new way of creating themes. Classic themes bundle all of the code needed to control the presentation and functionality of the site, with the theme itself. This often means that themes contain extra code to add features (e.g. a slideshow) as well CSS to control the layout.

With block themes, much of the theme’s functionality and presentation is provided by Gutenberg. This means that themes have a shared set of features and style rules, which brings several benefits for users:

  1. The user experience for customising themes is more consistent.
  2. When users switch themes, they won’t lose features, as Gutenberg provides the same features to all themes.
  3. Users can mix and match aspects of different themes – e.g. the header of one theme with the footer of another.

There are also some benefits for developers:

  1. Less code is needed to build a highly functioning theme.
  2. Features that are used by many themes are now provided by the community, so that everyone benefits from the work done to maintain and improve them.

Can I use block themes today?

Block themes are the future and they will provide users great tools when Full Site Editing launches. For now, only those who are running the latest Gutenberg plugin and are willing to use experimental features like the Site Editor are able to use block themes.

Although the Site Editor is not yet ready, many aspects Full Site Editing will be available in WordPress 5.8. There is an opportunity to start building some form of block themes before Site Editor is ready.

Two editing modes

Full Site Editing brings a new editing mode for themes. For the sake of this article we’ll call the current editing mode, “classic” (Site Editor disabled) and the Full Site Editing mode, “FSE” mode (Site Editor enabled).

Users with classic themes will (probably) need to switch themes if they want to start using the Full Site Editing features. However if we can build block themes in a way that works in “classic” mode, then users will be able to take advantage of Full Site Editing once the tools are available. We have been calling themes like this “universal” themes.

Universal themes

The vision for universal themes is that a user could create a site using WordPress without the Site Editor enabled. Then, when the Site Editor is more mature, users could switch to using that, with all the extra tools that Full Site Editing will bring. 

A universal theme would work in both editing modes.  A user should be able to build a site in classic mode and switch to FSE mode when the Site Editor is more mature or when they are ready to try all the extra tools that Full Site Editing will bring. Changes to a theme in classic mode should be reflected when I enable the Site Editor.

Side note: It is not expected that users would toggle between these two modes. The plan will be for everyone to migrate to the Site Editor at some point. The intention of universal themes is to allow people to easily migrate from classic to FSE, not to encourage switching between them.


We that know that the Site Editor is coming. Building themes in this way will allow users to transition from classic themes to block themes when they are ready without requiring them to switch themes.

To achieve this we need to consider several aspects of themes:


In classic themes, templates live in the root directory and, by convention, `template-parts`. In block themes they live in `block-templates` and, by convention, `block-template-parts`. We could build templates for both classic and block themes and put them in the respective directories but the problem with this approach is that if users make changes to their templates when in classic mode they will not be reflected if they switch to the Site Editor.

To use the same templates when in classic and FSE mode we can put our templates in the `block-template-parts` directory. We can include them in our block templates in our template file like this:


<!-- wp:template-part {"slug":"page"} -->

For classic templates we can include the same file using `gutenberg_block_template_part`, which will execute `do_blocks` on this template:


echo gutenberg_block_template_part( 'page' );

This approach means that users can switch from classic to FSE mode without losing their changes.

Classic themes use `wp_nav_menu` to render theme navigation elements, which can be customised in the Dashboard, or in the Customizer. On the other hand, Block themes rely on the Navigation block to display their navigation. A recent change to the Navigation block means that we can connect these interfaces together:

By passing the navigation block an `__unstableLocation` attribute with the location of the classic menu, we can display classic menus inside the Navigation block:

<!-- wp:navigation {"__unstableLocation":"primary"} --><!-- /wp:navigation -->

This allows us to edit menus in the Customizer and the Dashboard when in classic mode, and in the Navigation block when in FSE mode.

Sidenote: A short-coming of this approach is that once the navigation has been edited in FSE mode, it will not be possible to edit it in classic mode.


In classic mode, the Customizer is the main tool for editing theme settings. Aside from Menus (see above), by default the Customizer allows users to edit Site Identity and Homepage Settings. These are WordPress settings that are editable elsewhere in the Dashboard, and are also available to block themes. The exception to this is “Additional CSS” which is not editable when the Site Editor is enabled. The hope is that the Site Editor will allow users to edit their site directly so that they won’t need to use additional CSS.

Often themes add more customisation options – for example colors and fonts. Global Styles offers some of the same customisations. Using the Global Styles API it is possible to make changes to Global Styles in the Customizer. This would allow users to customise their site using both the Customizer and Global Styles. We’ve been playing with this idea in this PR: Quadrat: Add color customization.

Opting in and out of the Site Editor

One unresolved challenge for universal themes is how to opt-in users to the Site Editor. At present the Site Editor is enabled for all block themes, which includes universal themes (if your theme has a file in the location `block-templates/index.html` it will be treated as block theme).

To be able to launch universal themes before the Site Editor is ready, we will need a mechanism to temporarily disable it. There is more discussion on this issue.

What’s next?

At the moment universal themes are just an idea; there are still many unresolved questions about how we could achieve this vision. For an example of a theme that tries to take a universal approach see Quadrat.

Look out for more posts about this idea as we keep experimenting with it.

Author: Ben Dwyer

I make things. I particularly like to make music. Music is meant to be fun, that's why it's 'played'.