Designing a Gutenberg-Powered Theme: Music

Kjell Reigstad walks through his experience designing a block-powered theme.

Last week, Allan Cole and I shared a new Gutenberg-powered theme called Music. In this follow up post, I’m going to take you through the design process for the theme. At its core, this felt a lot like a typical theme design process, but I did learn a lot about block-based design along the way. 

Blocks

When Allan and I decided to make this theme, we already had a homepage comp featuring a handful of blocks. That comp did a great job of setting the tone for the design aesthetic. To get things going, I decided to apply that aesthetic to the other default Gutenberg blocks. I worked through the Gutenberg Blocks Sketch document from my last post, updating styles as I went.

 

Working this way was great for a couple reasons. First, it helped me focus — I’d never designed a block-optimized theme before, and this kept my design explorations squarely on the blocks themselves. I thought,  “Gutenberg is all about blocks, right? I’ll design some blocks.”

Second, the Sketch file allowed me to see every single block style in one place. In effect, I was creating a sort of pattern library as I went. I thought this was pretty cool, and figured it’d come in handy later on when we began development.

As I got further through these block designs, I realized the need to see all of these individual blocks in context; I’d design a wide-width cover image block, but I had no idea how it’d look in use. So I began dragging blocks around and stacking them up to get a sense of how they’d feel together.

Testing-Ground.png

This helped a little bit, but still wasn’t enough. At this point, I realized something that should’ve been obvious: blocks are not a theme. They’re just part of a theme. By designing blocks first, I’d been avoiding the big picture. Users will never see blocks all by themselves — they’ll exist within full pages. I needed to design more pages. 

Pages

My initial homepage design comp introduced a rough idea of a header and an off-centered text column. I began by duplicating that initial page and clearing out all the blocks on it, then pulled together some sample content. Looking at the project through the lens of my imagined client (the band Superserious), I was able to think through examples of blocks and block combinations that might exist on a real site: the columns block to display album information, the table block to display tour dates. This felt much more effective than randomly placing blocks on a page.

Around this time, I hit my stride, design-wise. I’d lay out a page using my existing blocks and the sample content. Then I’d iterate and experiment with everything on that page. Once things looked right, I’d migrate any new block tweaks back to the global symbols and start fresh on the next page. After a little while, I ended up with a solid set of sample pages.

 

Backing up and thinking about page design helped me shift focus to other, more traditional components that needed to be designed too: archive pages, page footers, post headers, etc. Designing these wasn’t all that different than it would’ve been without Gutenberg. In a way, we’ve all been designing with blocks all along — we just hadn’t called them blocks. Take a look at this entry summary:

Entry-Summary.png

If I’d designed this theme pre-Gutenberg, I still would’ve designed each one of those pieces — they’re all fairly standard parts of a theme. But thanks to Gutenberg, each piece is part of a clear pattern library, to be reused throughout the design by me and by the user. That’s pretty cool.

I’d gone into this project thinking I’d spend most of my time styling individual blocks, but I ended up splitting my time pretty evenly between designing block variations and overall page elements. In that sense, this wasn’t as drastically different from a traditional theme design as I’d anticipated.

Prototypes

I’d been getting ongoing feedback from Allan throughout the process above, but once we were happy with the page designs above, we gathered  with the rest of the Theme team to get broader design feedback. To help with that process, I pulled all my comps together into a prototype. This took just a few minutes to do, and really helped others get a sense of how the theme will work in practice.

I created two separate prototypes with Invision: one for desktop and one for mobile. If my transition from block design to full-page design was about looking at the bigger picture, these prototypes stepped back still further: they showed us the context around that big picture. We were all able to see the designs on-device and test some basic interactions. 

The team’s feedback was (as usual) very helpful — we made some subtle revisions to text contrast, adjusted a number of margins, and kicked off a lot of iteration on the mobile menu treatment.

Development

Allan had been focused on the build from the beginning, and had the majority of the framework in place at this point. After our design feedback session, I jumped into the code too.  

From the development angle, we’d already determined a few things in the design that we couldn’t do, or that would take too much effort. For instance, in my initial design comp I’d had a series of backgrounds run down the page. Gutenberg doesn’t have a method for doing something like that today; despite my wishful design thinking, there’s no method for layering a background behind a group of blocks. We could’ve accomplished it through customizer settings, but we shelved the idea in favor of keeping things simple. We also abandoned a bunch of the play buttons I’d originally included, since those’ll require some custom blocks (more on that later). 

Once I jumped into the code, my main revelation was that there were way more block options than I’d originally anticipated. A number of blocks had options I’d never noticed before. I hadn’t realized that paragraph blocks could be set to full width, or that cover image blocks could be floated left or right.

In addition, I realized some design decisions I’d made were actually supposed to be user-editable: I’d overlooked the fact that users can edit the text alignment and image opacity for the cover image block. This required more design exploration, but it guided us towards a much more customizable theme — definitely a win in the end.

Beyond those updates, the majority of the design-oriented development work involved minor fixes and adjustments — polishing up the CSS to make sure it aligned with the intent of the original design. 

Next steps

Now that we’ve had our initial release, Allan and I plan to build a separate plugin with complementary music-centric blocks, like a tour dates block and a mashup of a cover image and an audio player. We’ll hope to showcase those at some point in the future.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for the next post in the series: Allan’s experience from a development perspective.

 

Music: A Gutenberg-Powered Theme

Announcing the Music theme: an exploration of how Gutenberg can transform theme design and development.

A couple months ago, I created a Sketch document to assist with the design of block-driven themes. I posted about that here on Themeshaper, and provided a couple short examples of how it could be used in a theme design workflow.

Since then, Allan Cole and I have been working to make one of those examples — a site for an imagined band named Superserious — into a working example of a Gutenberg-powered WordPress theme. We named the theme “Music.”

Allan and I set out to experiment, learn, and create a resource for the community. We’ve documented our experience designing and building this theme, and will be publishing our notes in a series of posts here on Themeshaper.

To kick things off, we’re releasing Music on GitHub today. We’d love for you to give it a spin, tinker with it, and explore how it works with Gutenberg. Here are a few things to look out for:


Design

Our design goal for the theme has been to show that it’s possible (and encouraged!) to make a Gutenberg theme that doesn’t necessarily look like Gutenberg. We wanted to create something bold and a little experimental; a theme with somewhat aggressive, non-standard styles.

Gutenberg gives users unprecedented control over their site design, opening the door for variety and experimentation. Our favorite example of this is our cover image blocks. They look great out of the gate, but users can adjust the image, alignment, and color to achieve a wide range of looks:

cover-images.png

 


Development

You’ll be happy to hear that the overall theme development process wasn’t all that different with Gutenberg. Common patterns like headers, footers, and loops work just as you’d expect in a Gutenberg-powered theme.

In many areas, Gutenberg makes things easier for both users and developers. For instance, full-width header images used to require a custom-built customizer or theme option solution, but now they’re essentially built in. This was important to keep in mind while building the theme, and was a very positive change for development.

Creating stylesheets for blocks was pretty straightforward. Expanding on the built-in stylesheets in _s,  we added a blocks.scss file to the SASS directory and placed all of our block-specific styles and overrides there. This kept everything nice and organized and is likely to appear in _s in the future.

Since Gutenberg is output by the_content(), we learned to take special care with any wrapper divs that might clip or obstruct the expected behavior of Gutenberg blocks. We’ll talk more about that in a follow up post.



Block Styles

We’re truly excited about the custom editor styles that ship with Music. These styles are a breakthrough: they give users a much clearer sense of what their visitors will see on the front end.

Best of all (for theme developers at least), the editor styles were a breeze to integrate! We built all of these in over the course of just a few hours.



Like most of the work we do, the Music theme is open source. You can find it on GitHub:

https://github.com/automattic/musictheme/

If you’d just like to see the front end, feel free to click around our demo site here:

https://musictheme.mystagingwebsite.com/

In many ways, designing and building this theme was similar to the way we’ve made themes in the past — but we did carve out a few new practices along the way. Allan and I will be sharing them with you in upcoming posts. In the meantime, we encourage you to download, install, and experiment with Music yourself!

 

Read part two of this series: Designing a Gutenberg-Powered Theme: Music

Designing Themes with Gutenberg Blocks and Sketch

Follow Kjell Reigstad’s process as he explores designing a block-driven theme with Sketch, for the Gutenberg era.

There’s been an exciting discussion happening around the changes that Gutenberg will bring to themes. At Automattic, we’ve begun to prepare for Gutenberg by reevaluating our theme design and development processes.

As part of that work, I did some thinking about how I might start designing a block-driven theme today and what sorts of resources I’d want to have. The most important thing that came to mind was a way to access and customize all of the core Gutenberg blocks with a few clicks. This would allow me to quickly test and iterate on block design without having to dig into code. I do a good deal of my design work in Sketch, so I began to search for a way to make this possible there.

Luckily, there are already a few Gutenberg-related Sketch files in the wild. The Gutenberg Contributors page on GitHub and the Design Principles & Vision page on WordPress.org are great places to start. These are mostly aimed at the Gutenberg editing interface, however, and didn’t quite accomplish what I was looking for, so I ended up building a new file instead:

Gutenberg-Sketch-File.jpg

This new Sketch file contains symbols for all of the default Gutenberg blocks (with the exception of all the embeds, since those aren’t very customizable). With this set of symbols, it’s possible to quickly build a layout composed entirely of Gutenberg blocks using Sketch:

It’s actually pretty fun to use! In a way, it’s Gutenberg — but for Sketch. 😄
From here, it’s easy to start customizing styles:

I took this method for a spin and tried to mock up a theme for an imagined restaurant. To get started, I built out the page structure using default Gutenberg blocks:

From there, I started doing some light customizing. I cut myself off after a while, but the end result looked fairly decent:

I find this pretty cool. It’s an example of what a block-driven theme might look like with just a little bit of CSS customization.

From here, I could easily keep going and put together a complete, modular design system for this theme by customizing the rest of the Gutenberg blocks. I could view the blocks all at once on the Symbols page, and quickly build out a wide variety of layout options to make sure my styles held up to intense layout customization.


I almost ended there, but I decided to confront a lingering concern I’ve had about Gutenberg: I’ve feared that if we lean too much on Gutenberg for theme layout, we’ll end up with lots of very similar, “blocky” themes. The restaurant site I designed above looks fine, but it’s also clearly made of blocks. I wondered if it’d be possible to create something more experimental using this same Sketch file as a base.

So I took another stab at a pretend site design (this time for a band named Superserious), and forced myself to break out of the blocks a little more. Again, I began with a pure-Gutenberg layout:

But this time, I was much more aggressive in my customization and aimed for a more tailored mobile experience with bold typography:

This was a fun exercise, and it helped allay my fears a bit. That first Cover Image has all the usual pieces, but they’re styled in a very opinionated way. The rest of the blocks are fairly standard, but they still stand out because they exist within a heavily stylized, off-balance frame. The overall effect is drastically different from the theme in the previous exercise.


This process was very useful for me, and I’d love to see if it’s useful for the rest of the community as well. You can download and contribute to the Sketch files here:

https://github.com/Automattic/gutenberg-themes-sketch

The repository includes a basic Sketch file with just the symbols, plus all the text hierarchy styles (H1, H2, etc). I also created a library file in case that’s preferable for anyone. We hope to update these files periodically, and would love to hear feedback from others who use them.

In the meantime, we’ll keep experimenting with ways to design themes in this new Gutenberg-based future.