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!

Content Options in Jetpack 4.5

Now available through Jetpack, Content Options let users make small visual changes, like showing or hiding the author, date, featured images, and more.

Last August, we introduced a new WordPress.com Customizer panel called Content Options, which gives users an easy way to make small visual modifications across their sites – no custom CSS needed.

Content Options supports four main features: Blog Display, Author Bio, Post Details, and Featured Images.

Content Options are now available to self-hosted WordPress sites with the latest version of Jetpack (4.5). Theme developers can add support for Content Options by following the Jetpack guide.

Let’s look at the main features of Content Options in more detail.

Blog Display

Users can choose between displaying the full content of each post or an excerpt on the blog and category, tag, and date archive pages, as well as search results.

Full post blog display option in Shoreditch
Full post blog display option in Shoreditch
Post excerpt blog display option in Shoreditch
Post excerpt blog display option in Shoreditch

Default Blog Display

If a theme displays either an excerpt or the full post depending on the post’s post format, theme developers can add a “Default” blog display option to let the theme keep its default blog display settings. For example, by default a theme might always displays posts with the Quote post format as the full post, so a quote is never truncated, while other post formats like Standard might be always displayed as an excerpt.

Default blog display option in Button
Default blog display option in Button

Author Bio

On the single post view, users can opt to display the name and bio of the post’s author. This information comes directly from the author’s profile at Users  Your Profile, and their Gravatar image.

Author Bio displayed on single post in Shoreditch
Author bio displayed on single post in Shoreditch

Post Details

The post details section allows users to show or hide the post date, categories, tags, or the post author’s name.

Post Details displayed in Penscratch
Post details displayed in Penscratch
Post Details hidden in Penscratch
Post details hidden in Penscratch

Users can choose whether to display featured images on single posts and pages. They can also opt whether to display featured images on blog and archive pages, which include category, tag, and date archives as well as search-results pages.

Featured Images displayed in Sela
Featured images displayed in Sela

WordPress.com users have loved the flexibility Content Options gives them. We’re very pleased that self-hosted sites can now benefit as well!

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!