Morteza Heidarpour Morteza Heidarpour

Rebirth of Creativity: Gutenberg and the Future of WordPress Themes

I began using WordPress in 2005. I’d already been learning HTML and CSS for a couple of years. I even had a home-brewed blog that pulled posts from plain text files at one point. I knew enough JavaScript to do pop-up alerts and other annoying things that served no purpose and made for a poor user experience, even if they were fun for me.

This was my second attempt at using WordPress. This time it was after a botched go of making PHP Nuke behave how I wanted. I had big dreams for my website but lacked the coding skills to make them happen. WordPress was simple enough to hack for a novice like me at the time. Sure, I broke my site more times than I could count, but I managed to put together my first real theme.

I popped open Photoshop; grabbed a few images from Angel, my favorite TV show at the time; and began my work. I’d recently watched Soul Purpose, an episode that explored whether the titular character was truly the hero mentioned in an ancient prophecy. It was foretold that the vampire with a soul would shed his demon half and live as a human. It explored themes of the character’s place in the world. At 21 years old, it’s the sort of episode that resonated with a young man who was also looking for his place. I thought it fitting to work that into my theme’s design and began hacking away at a header for my theme.

A screenshot of the header for my first WordPress theme for my personal blog.
Screenshot of my first WordPress theme header.

At that time, there was this loosely-connected underground of themers and hobbyists who were building WordPress themes based on their favorite TV series, movies, comic books, and more. That was my first real introduction to WordPress. These people were not building themes for profit. They were searching for their place in this small corner of the internet. At most, some were looking for validation from like-minded people who might enjoy their art. It was about creation for the sake of creation. Anyone could be an artist with a simple lesson in CSS, an image manipulation program, and enough grit to pour their soul into the project for a few hours.

If there were ever a time that WordPress themes died, it was when the hobbyists who built for pure passion were overshadowed by business interests.

Don’t get me wrong; business interests played a crucial role in propelling WordPress to become the most dominant CMS in the world. However, the balance has clearly shifted in favor of building WordPress themes for business and ecommerce rather than for the enthusiasts who just want to create. Other platforms have better catered to these users and filled in the gaps left open by WordPress. Tumblr became a safe-haven for popular culture fans. DeviantArt a home for artists. Wattpad for aspiring writers and fanfic lovers.

Somewhere along the way, we lost the innocence and artistry of building WordPress themes for the pure fun of it. WordPress grew up and WordPress themes along with it.

Today’s Themes Are Not Tomorrow’s

In his post, The End of WordPress Themes is in Sight, Ben Gillbanks said, “Themes as we know them will no longer be made.” It is a bleak look at the future of WordPress theming. He notes that he doesn’t believe that he’ll be able to make a living building WordPress themes in the next couple of years.

His worries are warranted. They have been shared by several theme authors over the past couple of years as the block editor (Gutenberg) was making its way into core WordPress. The official theme review team has discussed the team’s future role surrounding the coming changes.

Gillbanks’ post comes on the heels of a post written by Matias Ventura on defining content block areas. Essentially, the idea is for WordPress to allow users to edit areas outside of the post content via the block editor. Anything from the header, footer, sidebar, or otherwise would likely be fair game.

In such a system, themes would be relegated to defining block areas, providing base styles, and designing block output. In many ways, this is what WordPress themes should be. Some might say that WordPress is putting themes back into their proper place of simply styling content. With the behemoth themes with hundreds or thousands of features we’ve seen over the past few years, this could be a welcome change.

There’s huge potential for designers to step up and make their mark. I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing CSS artists unleashed in the WordPress theme ecosystem.

Gillbanks went on to say:

There are definite benefits to doing this from a user’s perspective – they will have full control of their site – but it’s going to result in some very boring website layouts.

This is the point where I’ll respectfully disagree. Putting control in the hands of non-designers will be anything but boring.

Do we all so easily forget the days of GeoCities? The websites built from it may have been horribly inaccessible. They may have blared midi files as soon as you opened a webpage. They may have even had a flashing, scrolling marquee zipping across the header. Boring is not the word I’d use to describe them.

As much as many of us want to put those days behind us (Come on, you had one of those sites at one point, right? Tell the truth.), there was something fascinating about it all. Real people built these sites because they were fun. The sites told you something about that person. It was a deeply personal look into this stranger’s world. Sometimes it was just a bunch of junk spewed onto the screen, but most sites were a reflection of the site owners at that point in time.

It was ugly and beautiful all the same.

Web developers and designers joke about those dark days of the web. It’s easy to look back at sites from the ’90s and cringe at the silliness (It makes you wonder what designers of 2050 will think about today’s designs, doesn’t it?). I choose to look fondly upon those days. It was a time before I became a “designer” with rules to follow.

But, here’s the important point. We are not the arbiters of the web. It’s all about the user. If someone wants a blinking Justin Bieber GIF in their site header, more power to them. It’s the developer’s job to enable the user to do this in an easy-to-configure way.

Wait? So Geocities is your argument for full-site editing in WordPress?

Understanding why WordPress should become a full-site editor means understanding the average user. Developers are more apt to view things in a structured manner. I spent over a decade honing my development skills. Logic and order are old friends.

With end-users, things may seem a bit more chaotic. A teenager might want to plaster a picture of her favorite band anywhere she wants on her site. A soccer mom might want to show her kid slamming home the winning goal. A poet may want to showcase one of his poems as a background image on his blog. Humans are creative beings. While our unique brand of artistry might not appeal to others, it’s still something we crave to share.

It’s also important to understand that building WordPress themes is nowhere near as simple in 2019 as it was in 2005 when I started hacking away. The code is much more complex. It’s not quite as easy for a new user to piece together something fun as it once was. Unless you have a theme or plugin that allows you to do this with simple drag-and-drop or similar tools, users have little control over their own sites. And, that’s why the Gutenberg project is so revolutionary. Its mission is to put the power back in the hands of the people.

Theme authors need to evolve. They will need to find a way to balance good design principles with the insane amount of freedom users will have. There’s nothing stopping designers from making sure the Bieber screengrab looks more presentable.

Are WordPress Themes Dead?

No. But, the theme landscape will certainly change and not for the first time. We need not look at that as a bad thing.

Those hobbyists who like to tinker with their site, they will once again have power that was so long ago lost to more advanced code.

There will also sub-communities within the WordPress landscape. Some people will want something more akin to classic WordPress. Others will want a simple blog handled with Markdown (side note: I’m one of those people, and Gutenberg actually handles pasting from Markdown well). Plugins will be built to cater to every user’s needs. Themes will exist for different types of users. Client builds and enterprise solutions that look nothing like core WordPress aren’t going anywhere.

There’s still a long road ahead. Theme authors need to be more involved with the development of Gutenberg as these features make their way into the plugin and eventually into WordPress. Otherwise, they’ll risk losing the opportunity to help shape the future theme landscape.

Truth be told, I’m not sure what themes will look like in a few years. I have a horrible track record with predictions. However, I think it’s safe to say that there’ll be a place for designers.

I’m excited because I feel like it will bring back the potential for users to have the control they once had and more.

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