The Future of Underscores and A New Committer

The title may strike you as a bit ominous, but fear not. Underscores, our popular starter theme for WordPress theme development, isn’t going anywhere. As we continue to push for consistency in themes and imagine what they might become with Gutenberg, we’re bringing our attention back to Underscores. 🚀

For the last year and a half, we’ve experimented with a new starter-theme generator called Components. It was a way to make a few different theme “types” comprised of different components. The starter themes born from it brought with them more code and styles, and gave theme authors a bigger head start in their work. The generator we built to piece the different components together got complex quickly, though. We created a plugin to test builds locally and struggled with a seamless way to make many starter themes from one code base.

We learned a lot, though. We worked on Components at two team meetups, made almost 900 commits to the project and launched dozens of themes with it. However, we hit a point where we realized we had over-engineered parts of the project. The original idea is still solid: make starter themes do more by crafting them out of building blocks. But we didn’t hit the mark, so we’re retiring Components, and looking to bring some of what we learned there to Underscores.

In the last year, we’ve gotten a lot of questions from the community about Underscores and whether we had abandoned it. No way! It’s a stable project, and we enjoyed working on something new, away from it. It gave us better perspective and more ideas for the future of Underscores.

We also know that involvement from the community is vital. It’s been a while since we added our first contributor external to Automattic. To that end, we’ve given long-time Underscores contributor Ulrich Pogson commit access. He’s also a contributor to WordPress, most frequently as a member of the Theme Review Team. We’re excited to have his expertise and passion for world-class themes as part of the project. Please join me in welcoming Ulrich! 🎉

It’s always hard to let go of a project, in this case, Components. But it shouldn’t be, when you walk away with more knowledge than before. It has us excited and reinvigorated about Underscores and its role in the future of theming. And we’re glad Ulrich will help us along the way!

What We Look for in Themes for WordPress.com

What kinds of themes do we look for when we add to our collection on WordPress.com? We get this question a lot, both from existing and potential theme shops. And while some of the specifics evolve over time, the principles of what makes a good theme good remain the same. Whether it’s on WordPress.com or not.

When reviewing themes for WordPress.com, we never accept a theme based on design alone. We want to see the entire theme experience and for that you have to look at the user experience and code too. Why? You can have a beautiful design, but still make a bad theme. So we always look at three aspects, what we call the Three Amigos, named after a popular American comedy movie.

Design

We consider a lot of different design aspects. In general, we look for a strong grasp of design principles, especially methods that help establish harmony and unity:

  • Perspective: sense of distance between elements.
  • Similarity: repeating similar – but not identical – elements with strong visual connections.
  • Continuation: the sense of having a line or pattern extend throughout a design.
  • Repetition: elements being copied or mimicked numerous times.
  • Rhythm: achieved when recurring position, size, color, and use of a graphic element has a focal point interruption.
  • Altering the basic foundation of the design achieves unity and helps keep interest.

Code

We look for themes that follow the WordPress.org Theme Requirements and WordPress.com Theme Requirements.

User Experience

We run through setup to see how challenging it is to make the theme look like the theme demo. Complicated theme setups cause a large amount of user frustration, refunds and theme switches. We look at theme options to see if they’re intuitive to set up, simple, or complex. Any patterns that may confuse WordPress.com users are noted. User experience might just be the most important thing. You can’t use a theme if you can’t use it.

We’re always open to exceptions, if they can be justified by an innovative or creative theme that users will love.

And one last note – whether our marketplace is officially accepting new theme shops or not, we’re always looking for amazing, new themes. Make one, put it out there, and we’ll probably find it.

Happy theming!

A Set of Theme User Experience Requirements

This year, we’ve focused heavily on improving people’s experience using themes on WordPress.com. We’ve dug into defining the most common and tricky issues for people using themes through research, user testing, and iteration.

We still have a long way to go toward substantially improving people’s WordPress theme experience. To that end, we’re introducing a new set of requirements for all themes on WordPress.com to follow, geared toward making themes easier for people to set up and use. We call it the TUX List.

It features best practices like this:

  • Keep widget names descriptive of their location, ie. Sidebar, Footer, etc. Reason: Users can more easily find them and know what area they refer to.
  • Widget IDs should take the format of sidebar-1, sidebar-2, etc.

Reason: Consistency across themes means that a user can switch themes and not have to reassign their widgets to the theme’s widget locations. It also allows for easier readability in code.

We wanted to share it with the community, since incorporating these best practices into your themes on WordPress.org and elsewhere means anyone using them will have an easier time getting to what they really want to do: publish their site. Nothing on the list should restrict your creativity when it comes to designs.

Give it a read and let us know if you have any questions or ideas on how to make it better. Making themes easier is a job for everyone. Happy theming!

Show the Latest Featured Image from Featured Content

For the latest ThemeShaper remake, we added Featured Content to Twenty Sixteen. That’s standard, but our design called for not showing the featured image of every post, but only the latest post. That image serves as a backdrop to our collection of featured posts, which can be from one to three posts at a time. It’s a neat design pattern, so I thought I’d share the code needed to grab that image.

First, I assume you have featured content set up like the example code from the Jetpack documentation suggests. Next, let’s write a function to grab that image:

function mytheme_get_first_featured_featured_image() {
	$featured_posts = mytheme_get_featured_posts();
	if ( is_array( $featured_posts ) && ! empty( $featured_posts ) ) {
		$post_id = (int) $featured_posts[0]->ID;
		if ( has_post_thumbnail( $post_id ) ) {
			 $big_post_image = wp_get_attachment_image_src( get_post_thumbnail_id( $post_id ), 'mytheme-custom-image-size' );
			 printf( 'style="background-image: url(%s);"', esc_url( $big_post_image[0] ) );
		}
	}
}

Using it in your theme:

<div id="featured" class="featured-posts" <?php mytheme_get_first_featured_featured_image(); ?>>

<!-- Other stuff -->

</div>

A few notes about what’s happening in the code above:

  • First, we need to grab the featured posts, and check to make sure there are some posts.
  • If there is, we assign the post ID of the latest post to a variable, $post_id. We’ll need that later.
  • Next, if the latest post has a post thumbnail, we create another variable, $big_post_image, and use it to assign the actual output of the image URL.
  • Finally, we output the markup. It outputs as a style attribute, and you can then style the rest via CSS. In your theme, you just attach the function to the div or html element you want to apply the style on.

That’s it! Hopefully, this code snippet helps you in the next theme you create. Happy theming!

Introducing Components: A Toolbox for WordPress Theme Development

Meet Components, a starter-theme generator to speed up WordPress theme development.

We love a good starter theme. Since launching Toolbox and its popular successor, Underscores, we’ve always reached for a starter theme when building our next, awesome WordPress theme to get us off on the right foot. With Underscores, we always say it gives you a 1,000-hour start. We get excited when we see someone fork Underscores and make it their own, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we’re obsessed with evolving what we think of as a starter theme.

Continuing that journey, we’re pleased to announce Components. Think of it as a toolbox for taking your themes where you want them to go, faster. Forked from Underscores, Components gives you a solid base to work from – but it also takes the starter theme to the next level, offering a choice between five different theme types. Each one adds the code needed for starting a certain type of theme. You can select from:

The Classic Blog

  • A two-column layout
  • A sidebar with widgets
  • Navigation in the header
  • A fixed maximum width of 1120px in your style.css file

The Modern Blog

  • A single-column layout
  • A sliding panel for navigation, social menu, and also widgets
  • A large featured image with full-width script

Portfolio

  • A portfolio post type, courtesy of Jetpack, added to all the necessary files
  • A grid portfolio view
  • A single column blog template
  • A sliding panel for navigation, social menu, and also widgets
  • A large featured image with full-width script

Magazine

  • A front page template with featured images in grid a layout, plus a two-column blog
  • Layout with excerpts
  • A two-column layout
  • A sidebar with widgets
  • Navigation in the header
  • A fixed maximum width of 1120px in your style.css file

Business

  • A front-page template with a custom header, testimonials section, and  page content area
  • A custom testimonial post type turned on, courtesy of Jetpack
  • A two-column layout
  • A sidebar with widgets
  • Navigation in the header
  • A fixed maximum width of 1120px in your style.css file

Why Components?

So why the different approach with Components? Three main things inspired this direction: the community behind Underscores, the people who use our themes every day, and the web design and development community.

While maintaining and improving Underscores, we always see great pull requests from the community that we turn away because the contributions end up being too specific for a normal starter theme. Many of those additions would have been perfect in most themes. Now, some of them have a home in a project that zeroes in on a certain kind of user with each theme it builds. Speaking of users, we know from launching hundreds of themes on WordPress.com that themes are one of the most challenging areas of WordPress for people to understand. They need more themes that “just work,” and we hope Components will help achieve that. Lastly, the web community has embraced building systems, methodically created with the pieces that make up a site. Even some popular libraries have taken this approach. We see Components as the first step to allowing you to make a starter theme that’s just right for your project.

We’re very excited to see what the community brings to the project and are looking forward to evolving Components with your help. Right now, we’re in the early stages of our vision and execution for Components, so expect both repositories that power this project, theme-components and components.underscores.me to evolve quickly and constantly.

Fork or download Components on GitHub or generate your own custom starter theme at components.underscores.me and have fun making awesome new WordPress themes!

WordPress Themes and User Experience

Good user experience in WordPress themes can make the difference between frustrated or happy users. Yet, it’s often overlooked. A solid user experience can feel just right, creating sound expectations and delight. If you’re looking to boost your theming skills and learn more about themes and user experience, we recommend these three recent talks by members of the Automattic Theme Team:

Kirk Wight, A Call for Simplicity: As WordPress blazes into its second decade, theming, plugin development, and WordPress core itself are reaching troublesome levels of complexity and confusion, challenging the very essence of what has gotten WordPress to where it is in the first place. Pulling from diverse areas of culture and tech, we’ll tie together our need for simplicity, and issue a call to arms for the next ten years of WordPress.

Tammie Lister, Theme, Don’t Be My Everything: It’s time to stop putting everything including the kitchen sink into themes. A theme shouldn’t be a bloated monster with an options panel that stretches out the horizon. This talk is a call to action to stop making themes that do everything and start making themes that focus.

David Kennedy, Themes are for Users: In this talk, we’ll explore user research, theme setup, theme options and more. By the end, you’ll know what makes up a theme’s user experience, and how to set your users up for success.

And if you’re still getting started with theming, or even WordPress, wondering how you could ever contribute to WordPress and add value – you’re not alone. Check out Kathryn Presner’s The Techie Continuum, and start contributing to WordPress today!

Elmastudio on Running Your Own Business, Theming, Selling on WordPress.com and More

Devin Price of WP Theming recently interviewed Ellen Bauer and Manuel Esposito of Elmastudio about running your own theme business, selling on WordPress.com, and much more. You can listen to the interview or read the transcript. It’s a great peek inside a successful theme business. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Ellen, on the hardest parts of running a theme business:

You have to find a work routine yourself and be consistent. Over the long run, if you want to do your work or job for a couple years, you have to think a little bit ahead. I think this is what we’ve learned over the last years, that consistency is most important. You have to be there for your customers and for your people.

Manuel, on finding inspiration:

All of the stuff that’s happening in your life and around you. It could be food. Print magazines are great inspirations for typography, the detail stuff. But the main designs, the layout, the conception- it comes from weird stuff actually.

Ellen, on focusing a design:

From our experience, we just have the most fun and we can do the best job we can if we do design we just love and we would use. It’s okay, not everyone loves our style of design. I think it’s totally okay because there are so many solutions to doing a WordPress design.

Ellen, on selling themes on WordPress.com:

We always try to do very minimal themes and do them, if you can say, the WordPress way – don’t do a very custom development style, so it’s not that hard to get the themes [to] work on WordPress.com.

Image courtesy of Elmastudio.

Building a Strong Foundation with Keyboard Accessibility

Learn how keyboard accessibility can serve as your foundation for an accessibility-ready theme, helping you create a solid base.

When you build a house, you start with the foundation. It becomes the base upon which you form everything else around. Without it, your house could crumble because of improper construction. Web accessibility shares some of the same principles. You need a solid foundation to have an accessible website and WordPress theme.

Keyboard accessibility can serve as your foundation for an accessibility-ready theme, helping you create a base that you can build on with confidence. Once you have it in place, accessibility becomes easier as you go.

Keyboard Accessibility Principles

But where do you start? You can tackle any of the four principles below one at a time. Pick one, practice implementing it in your next theme, and you’ll see the benefits. Bringing these to your project matters more than mastering them in any specific order.

Use the Keyboard

Know how to navigate with a keyboard alone. WebAIM, a non-profit organization focused on web accessibility, has an excellent article on keyboard accessibility. It includes how to use a page with the keyboard alone. From the article:

With modern web accessibility, there are many ways in which keyboard accessibility can become difficult or impossible. Fortunately, keyboard testing is easy – simply put the mouse away and test the page using only a keyboard. The tab and shift + tab keys can be used to navigate through links and form controls, and Enter can be used to activate links, buttons, or other interactive elements.

Who uses the keyboard every day on the Web? People who are blind use it almost exclusively. People with low vision may also use it if a page can be enlarged and the contrast is high enough. Those with motor disabilities often can’t use a mouse. Alternative devices also come into play too, like those that allow users to “puff and sip,” and work with airflow from the mouth. These devices interact with the computer similar to a keyboard, so they benefit from proper keyboard accessibility.

Watch your Source Order

Keep your source order in mind. Source order means how your HTML is ordered and how it flows on the page. As you create your theme, make sure that it’s logical. Turning off CSS provides a good, simple way to test this. Once everything on the page becomes linearized, does it still make sense?

Links and Buttons are Links and Buttons

Use semantic HTML and controls that have accessibility already built in. This means that links Home and buttons Main Menu are your best choice. Only three elements in HTML can be focused on by default: links, buttons and form fields. If you use a

or to create an element that’s clickable via JavaScript, a keyboard user will not be able to reach that element. Sure, you can use JavaScript to make it focusable, but why would you if HTML already does the work for you? If you don’t like the default styles of a normal , then you can style it however you’d like with CSS.

Don’t Lose Your :focus

Design and pay attention to the :focus states for your theme. Users with disabilities have an array of needs that don’t always start with a screen reader. Many users access the web using a keyboard alone, or other devices that rely on keyboard access to navigate the web. Having visual :focus styles on elements like links, buttons and form fields means they can see where they are as they navigate. For example, Underscores comes with this bit of CSS on links in the Reset section:

a:focus {
	outline: thin dotted;
}

a:hover,
a:active {
	outline: 0;
}

Having a thin, dotted outline on :focus is considered the default focus style in most browsers. It’s a good place to start, but if you’d like something different, you can design it. However, do not completely remove focus styles by setting outline: 0. That leaves your theme unusable by people who depend on the keyboard. Focus states can often mimic hover states, but they do not have to be identical. The important point here is that they do not rely on color alone. Many users have varying degrees of color blindness and/or low vision. Relying on color alone can become problematic. Using an outline, border or some other kind of shape helps your focus styles shine.

Potential Problems and Enhancements

Keyboard accessibility can become more complex in a few places. Patterns like dropdown menus, menu toggles, tabs, and modals require extra care and thought, but the same principles apply. Knowledge of the tab index attribute and ARIA roles and properties come in handy here. These advanced techniques are beyond the scope of this article, but some useful posts and tutorials have more information:

Further Reading and Resources

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments. Happy theming with accessibility in mind!

Up Your Theming Game by Reviewing Themes

You have strong theme sense, you’ve started working on or released a theme into the world, and you want to get better. You can do just that and do it without one design iteration or a single line of code.

Join the WordPress Theme Review team.

Few communities like the WordPress community exist in the world. You’ll find many opportunities to make behind-the-scenes contributions that have huge ripple effects. The WordPress Theme Review team is one of those opportunities. If you’re a themer at any level, you can learn more than you ever would creating themes by yourself.

You’ll get to know the theme requirements. Reviewing themes taps you into the pulse of WordPress theming and its best practices. You’ll become an expert with the theme requirements in no time. With that knowledge, you’ll be able to create better themes, and create them faster. Plus, you don’t really know something until you have to explain it with clarity to someone else. You’ll do that with each review.

You can contribute without code. You know and I know it, seeing your name on the WordPress credits page is a thrill. However, you can help WordPress in many ways without knowing the ins and outs of code. Contributing to the Theme Review team can improve your code skills fast. You’ll read more code and provide more feedback than you could on your own. Each time a theme you reviewed goes live, you’ll feel just as good as seeing your name on the WordPress credits page – promise.

See better themes everywhere. This should go without saying, but with each theme you review, you’ll have a chance to make it a little better. That means better themes for the users of WordPress and better experiences across millions of sites. More people will be able to find a theme that fits them perfectly, and be more willing to publish and share their ideas with the world. What a great way to spend a few hours of your time.

You’ll find inspiration and become a better themer. Each new theme review will expose you to new ideas, from design to code to tools to process and so much more. Every theme has its own dose of inspiration. Take it in. Experiment. Iterate. Repeat.

Help people create. At the end of the day, you’re doing something incredibly special – you’re helping someone’s creation come to life. I love theming because you get to build something from scratch. You mix some art, science, and part of you into something that has never existed before. Creating is good, helping others create is even better.

Learn from shared knowledge and teamwork. When reviewing a theme, you’re not just helping or teaching – you’re on the same team. You have so much to share with each other. You both have the same goal. It’s not about who knows more, it’s about how much you know together. See what you can do with it.

Learn about the WordPress Theme Review team and become a reviewer today.

Happy theming theme reviewing!