Themes are Mission Control

When we think of space flight, we often think of the thing that gets us there: the shuttle, module or rockets that take us out of this world.

However, in the early days of space flight programs at NASA, one man realized how important control from the ground would be to quickly evolving missions. Christopher Kraft pioneered the creation of Mission Control, the place where dozens of engineers, scientists and staff on the ground assist the astronauts in carrying out their mission from thousands of miles away.

About the Flight Director, the person in charge of Mission Control, Kraft said:

[T]he guy on the ground ultimately controls the mission. There’s no question about that in my mind or in the astronauts’ minds. They are going to do what he says.

The notion of Mission Control makes a good metaphor for a WordPress theme. Themes sit at the center of the WordPress experience. They run the show. WordPress is the ship and rockets that get us there. Without a theme, the mission won’t be successful. Sure, at its core, WordPress is publishing software, but many more people interact with the front end of a site than its back end.

So how do we start thinking of themes as an experience, rather than part of the experience?

Design how the pieces fit together. Most themers see the parts of a theme experience as separate. I did too, until recently. When I say separate, I mean as different parts of one flow. We often create the theme and the documentation with little thought as to how customers get from the theme to the help text when they need it. We also don’t spend time on onboarding or setup with customers. All that matters though, and it can help get a customer to success and make them feel like a success. We need to pay more attention to how those parts connect for a better experience.

Be consistent. Themes in WordPress have this great strength because they can do nearly anything. Their biggest weakness? They can do nearly anything. This means how a theme behaves can vary widely from one to the next. We’ve tried to address this in projects like Underscores and the TUX (Themes User Experience) list, but you can never do enough. I’d like to see themes only vary greatly from the norm if it accomplishes an important design goal for the customer.

Mind the internals. Recently, we had our support team at WordPress.com share why themes frustrate our customers. So much of the frustrations boil down to what a customer might not have control over in a typical theme. Things like how an image is cropped or how WordPress Core handles some default data. Experimenting with how these types of things work for your customers can mean they’re happier in the end.

If you make these items a bigger part of your theme design process, you’ll have more control over your theme’s experience. And your customer’s missions will have a greater chance of success.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

Balancing Options vs. Overload

On WordPress.com, one thing we’ve been focusing on is making themes that just work. It’s a bit of a balancing act; it’s very tempting to allow customers to control every aspect of their theme, because it seems like the simplest way to give them what they want.

That idea may sound great to customers, but having panels of options in the Customizer and an armload of documentation to figure them out is daunting. You can change things, but you’re also faced with making dozens of small, similar decisions about various aspects of your site, and deciphering the purpose of various controls.

It is true that in WordPress themes, some options are necessary. When designing and building a theme, it’s important to distinguish what options fit the actual intent of the design, and what options are being added for the sake of adding them.

You can often figure out which is which by tracking common pain points.

One way to do this is through support requests. On WordPress.com, we have a dedicated, talented team of Happiness Engineers who interact with customers every day. As Gary Murray wrote in a recent post, support teams are an important link between our work and our customers, and an invaluable wealth of information.

For themes, the support requests often involve how to set up a theme or use different options (which is why making themes that just work from the get-go is important). But other requests have to do with customizing a theme in specific ways. Some are unique to a customer’s specific goals; others come up again and again from different customers, either in the same theme or across several different themes.

In the Ixion theme, we recently added an option to control the opacity of the overlay used on front page photos, after several customers asked about changing or removing it.

Ixion with its two new options.

One purpose of the dark overlay is to ensure the text on top is legible against the photo. But if you’re starting with a photo that’s already pretty dark, the overlay isn’t needed and can make it hard to distinguish details in the photo. We were able to add this option while maintaining the original appearance, so customers who weren’t troubled by the opacity didn’t know the change happened.

Another feature that came from frequent customer requests was Content Options. A brainchild of Thomas Guillot, Content Options are a way for customers to make small visual changes on their site, like hiding the date, author name, or featured images. Rather than adding the options to individual themes, it’s a feature available in Jetpack and WordPress.com that themes can support. That way, the options are available in several themes and implemented exactly the same way.

Both additions were guided by the goal of keeping things simple, balanced with following actual customer requests.

When looking at adding options to a theme, there are a few things that can help to keep things simpler:

First, aim to make a theme that just works on activation. If the design’s not possible without multiple options, rethink it. If options are necessary to get the theme to work well with different kinds of content, find a way to make the theme more forgiving instead. Make the theme do as much work as it can by itself.

In a similar vein, make the theme make the decision. You could allow customers to switch a sidebar position, or make the header sticky, but unless it’s a very common request it’s best left out. Chances are, one option looks best and makes the most sense for the theme you’re building — use that one.

Use existing WordPress functionality rather than custom options. I don’t mean stretch the options beyond their original intent, just don’t reinvent the wheel. For example, look to use the custom header image or featured images in the theme before adding another image upload option to the Customizer.

When adding options, rethink your approach to customization. Alright, you’ve discovered your customers can’t live without being able to change their header’s layout. Rather than having separate controls to move each individual item — logo, header image, menu, social links, site title — is there another way to approach this? Aim for simpler, more opinionated controls to limit the decisions customers have to make. Basically, make your options smart.

Last but never least, user test, talk to your customers, and work directly with them when you can. They’ll help guide you to that point where your themes can help them feel empowered, but not overwhelmed.

Photo by Patryk Grądys on Unsplash.

The Next Chapter for Themes

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 WordPress.com, 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.

Behind the Design of the Forefront theme

If you’ve read my previous articles you’ll recognize the title of this post. For those of you who are new, these are my thoughts behind the themes I’ve designed. This time, I’d like to talk about Forefront — a responsive Business theme.

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Behind the Design of the Ryu Theme

Much like I did for the Further theme, I’d like to share my thoughts behind Ryu — the free theme I released recently.

Yes, you guessed right. It’s named after the main character of the classic game. If you know why the character was named Ryu, you will understand why I named this theme Ryu, too. 🙂

I mentioned this in my previous post about the Further theme, Behind the Design of the Further Theme, too that I strongly believe that we, as WordPress theme designers, should create amazing themes for specific purposes/audiences rather than multi-purpose themes that are just good. In many cases, themes designed for a specific purpose or a targeted audience perform better when people use them for that purpose. I’ve created Ryu specifically for the Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter generation of personal bloggers.

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The Recipe for a Great Theme

Have you ever looked at a WordPress theme and thought, “Man, I wish I could do that!” Well, here’s a little secret: You totally can.

Yes, you can make a theme, and you don’t need to be a theme expert to do so. You just need three things:

  • An idea,
  • a healthy dose of curiosity,
  • and time.

An Idea

Until five years ago, I’d never touched a WordPress theme. I didn’t have a lot of experience, I’d never experimented with dynamic programming languages, and I’d never had to design for a vast and varied audience.

But what I did have were ideas – how about a theme for babies? Or a theme with changing seasons? Or a theme with animated fish? I didn’t know how to make these themes happen – I just knew I wanted to make them.

Without an idea, there is no theme! So before you do anything, figure out what you want to build. Have a goal to strive for, write up some notes, sketch it out.

It doesn’t have to be mind-blowing, or revolutionary, or the Next Big Thing, as long as you’re excited about it. You’re probably not going to make history with your first theme, but why let that deter you from making something really cool?

A Healthy Dose of Curiosity

If you like to learn, you’ve already taken a huge step toward becoming a themer. WordPress changes often, so theming techniques change often, too. You don’t have to venture far for learning material – you’re looking at a wealth of theme-makin’ goodness right here at ThemeShaper!

But I encourage you not to get mired in the technical details. You know how you may use Photoshop, but you probably don’t use one-tenth of its capabilities? Theming is like that. You don’t need to know how to do it all – you just need to figure out one piece at a time.

Think of your theme as a puzzle, and break it into smaller components – a fixed sidebar, an animated drop-down menu, a customizable header that changes colors – together they’re an intimidating obstacle, but if you tackle each piece individually, you’re likely to find it’s not as difficult as you think.

Also keep in mind, you don’t necessarily need to start from scratch (unless you want to!) Maybe you’re less interested in coding a theme, but you want to illustrate one – you can always build a child theme, or use a starter theme, so you don’t have to dive as deeply into the code.

Here are some of our favorite ThemeShaper resources to get you started:

And finally, tutorials have their place, but don’t be afraid to play around! Some of the best learning experiences and discoveries are hands on. Remember: There are very few things you could do to your WordPress theme that a quick Ctrl+Z can’t fix.

Time

We’ve come to the part I can’t help with. You have the idea, you have the tools, now you just have to make it happen. Easier said than done, but as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Some of the best themes take weeks, months, or possibly even years, to come to fruition.

But beware: Theming is addictive. If you spend enough time with it, you may find yourself staying up late into the night to squash a CSS float bug, or research scripts for a post slider, or find just the right shade of blue for that navigation menu. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

I hope this inspires you to give theming a chance if you haven’t already – it’s a great opportunity to try something new and make something cool!

Behind the Design of the Further Theme

Recently, I released Further — Automattic’s first premium magazine theme. I’ve been given a chance to write about my thoughts behind its inspiration, design, and development. I hope this gives you something to think about as you design your next WordPress theme or website.

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10 Beautiful Responsive WordPress Themes from the Official Directory

If you’ve just started a WordPress blog, you may not want to invest money in premium themes. Don’t worry, there are nice looking, free, and responsive themes in the Official Directory! I’ve picked ten themes that help to get your newly created blog up and running quickly.

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10 Beautiful WordPress Themes from the Official Directory

We are obviously theme junkies here and everyday we check the official free theme directory. It’s only March now but many free themes have already became available since the new year. To highlight the great themes there I picked up ten themes added in 2012 that are not only coded well but look beautiful.

Like last year, 2012 has been and is going to be another great year for WordPress themes. Huzzah!

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