The Promise of Gutenberg: Themes as More Design, Less Baggage

Gutenberg promises the vision you have takes shape in the editor, instead of something you can’t see. Why’s that so powerful?

It happened again.

I sat with a potential WordPress themer, who wanted to know how to get started the right way with theme development. He’s a user experience professional by day, looking to up his coding skills.

He pointed to the WordPress editor, and said something like, “I understand HTML and CSS, but I’m not sure how to make something beyond putting it in there.”

We’ve all been there. Having that vision of what you want your site to look like, and not knowing how to get there. Gutenberg promises the vision you have takes shape in the editor, instead of some PHP file or a special plugin that isn’t truly native to WordPress. That’s powerful! It shifts much of the customization control from the themer to the person using the theme.

Today, if you’re trying to get into WordPress development, you might start by tweaking an existing theme. Then making a child theme. Then diving into a custom theme. My user-experience professional friend did just that. He’s already customized a theme and made a child theme. But the whole world of specialized WordPress theme knowledge can intimidate even professional web workers. Imagine how it feels to new users of WordPress who have never built a website before?

But with Gutenberg, people – professionals and beginners alike – can begin building what they want. Now, Gutenberg will no doubt need its own specialized knowledge. But at its heart, it will transform what a theme means to WordPress. They can become more about pure design, powered by the simplicity of CSS.

You might be saying, “But you can already use CSS now to change a theme’s design.” That’s true, but much of a theme’s structure gets determined by and locked away in template files. Hard to change unless you start learning how to “theme.” But with much of that structure and markup becoming blocks that can be added to a theme, it becomes easier for people who aren’t themers to see different possibilities.

Say goodbye to lots of custom widgets and theme options. Oh, and to limiting page templates. The future of WordPress themes can become more about empowering users to work on their vision instead of always having to learn how to “theme.” It starts in the editor and not with the theme.

Photo by Dmitri Popov.

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.