Ben is a lifelong Nintendo fan who likes to build websites, and make video games. He buys way too much Lego.
I recently spoke on a panel at WordCamp London 2015e. Lance – who used to be the Theme Team lead at WordPress.com – asked me if I wanted to speak on a panel with him at WordCamp London 2015. I’ve not spoken at a conference before, I’ve always been too scared, but since it was a panel some of the pressure was lifted from my shoulders and so I decided to say yes.
I shared the panel with Tammie, a themer at WordPress.com – and Tiago, who looks after the Canvas theme at WooThemes. So I was in good company. A few weeks before the conference Lance sent the panel a list of possible questions so that we could prepare.
It was the first time I have spoken at a conference – so I wrote lots of notes to practice with. Since we only answered a handful of the original questions I thought it might be interesting to publish my notes.
How did you get started with theme development?
My first theme was for my own site and was a modification of the Classic theme – the first bundled WordPress theme. I’ve never used a theme made by someone else – I have always created my own.
How did you learn about WordPress best practices?
More recently working with the wordpress.com theme team, who review every line of code I write, has taught me a lot as well. It can be painful because they often find problems – but at the same time my themes end up a lot better than they were.
Next-Generation themes: what do you think Twenty Sixteen will include?
Obviously I don’t know what Twenty Sixteen will bring but I like that the default themes try to focus on doing something different each time. It would be nice to see something more innovative happening with the theme – perhaps using the REST API. It would be a good way to show off what will be the most significant new feature in a long time.
How do you see the state of the business of selling themes, in 2015?
There’s a lot of companies selling themes now, but I think there’s still room for new people. There’s millions of active WordPress sites so there’s always going to be people looking for new themes.
How do you tackle the design process?
Because I don’t work for clients the design process is quite fluid for me. I make an initial mockup in Sketch and then I build in browser – often changing the design as I see how things work together.
Because I am building things for a more general audience it can be quite challenging to make something that is generic enough to work for anyone – whilst still being different and having a bit of personality.
That said – I am considering trying to make personas so that I know who my themes are for and then targeting things more.
State of WP.org themes directory and reviews?
I don’t have an opinion on this. Since I have never used a theme made by someone else, and since I focus on premium themes – it’s not somewhere I visit very often.
Do you have your own theme frameworks or use a starter theme like Underscores?
I used to have a theme framework that I used and maintained and built child themes on top of. However I found it too hard to maintain and too complicated for the things it did. Now I use my own starter theme called Granule.
My theme is based on a starter theme made by Darren Hoyt, my business partner for the last 8 years, that he used to sell. We then refactored it to ensure it follows modern theme standards suitable for wordpress.com. It’s the theme I work on the most – even though it’s likely nobody, apart from Darren and I, will ever see it.
Whilst I don’t use it I do follow the development of Underscores and often take ideas for new features from there.
How do you look after Theme Support and Maintenance?
Keep support as simple as possible. I sell on wordpress.com and Creative Market and try to stick to their respective support solutions. If people email/ tweet I point them to the native solutions. I suggest keeping your themes simple, remove options and there will be less to maintain. For theme maintenance I like to keep things as up to date as possible so often go back to tweak and improve things.
What’s your approach to mobile and responsive design?
I don’t think this is even a question. If you don’t make your site work on a mobile device then you’re no longer relevant.
What is your favorite theme of all time, and why?
I don’t think it’s possible to have a favourite theme but there are a few themes that are important to me. My most used theme is a starter theme that I use for all my projects called Granule.
The most influential theme is Kubrick. It’s not a theme I like but if I hadn’t seen how well that did then I doubt I would have made my first free theme.
Finally – the Mimbo theme. If Mimbo hadn’t been released then I would never have contacted Darren to ask about collaborating.
What advice do you have to a themer starting a new theme shop today?
Do some research and pick a niche that is under-served. Pick something that you know you can bring value to, and that you are passionate about. There’s a lot of sites that create generic blogging themes so try to do something that targets a specific audience.
I’d also look at starting with a theme marketplace like Creative Market. Selling yourself is tempting but marketplaces have a ready made audience and they take care of things like the recent EU VAT regulations.
Should commercial theme shops also release themes for free? Why or why not?
It’s up to each theme shop – but I don’t think it’s necessary myself. The audience for free and premium themes are quite different. In the time I have been selling premium themes I’ve found that my customers are most often businesses, or web designers making sites for clients. In general individuals are less likely to want to part with money for their personal blog.
As such – if you make free themes then you’re going to be creating content for people who are unlikely to pay for your premium product.
An alternative might be creating a free theme with paid add-ons, much like the Make theme from Theme Foundry, but that’s a different business model and I’m not convinced it would work. I’d love to get some data on Make and see how well it’s done 🙂
My theme shop is small, I run the shop and I have a full time job, so I have to focus on the thing that benefit me most. Creating a free theme might give good karma – but it doesn’t put food on the table. Perhaps it would have more benefit if my target audience weren’t on a closed platform.
How do you handle customer support? What’s your biggest challenge there?
I do all the customer support myself. In the past I’ve hired people to do it, but it’s never as good as doing it yourself. I see two areas that I find challenging.
Firstly it’s funnelling people into the correct support channels. It doesn’t matter what you do – people will find you wherever you are. I’ve had Facebook messages to my personal account, emails through my personal website, tweets – all sorts of things.
Secondly – I do 95% of the support, and so when I go on holiday I have to take my laptop with me and help people. I try to stick to regular working hours but if a theme is broken then I don’t want my customers to be unhappy so I fix it.
What trends do you see happening in themes for 2015? What will have the biggest impact?
I also think animation is going to play a bigger part in web design. Adding subtle transitions and animations to elements helps to add a lot of personality.
I don’t know if this is a trend but I am currently fascinated by the idea of AI controlled websites. Services like thegrid.io are trying to take the burden of design away from website owners and I think the idea is great. I think there’s a lot of parallels between how WordPress works and how TheGrid works. In both you create content and the chosen theme structures the content automatically. The real difference may be buried in semantics but I am currently working on a theme that uses some of these AI lead ideas.
What’s your workflow: starter theme, child theme + framework, from scratch, default theme?
Most of the time I use a starter theme, sometimes I create child themes. I don’t see the need for frameworks these days. IMO they are too generic and add a lot of weight that isn’t needed.
Who or what inspired you the most in your theme career?
I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship and running my own business so people in the WordPress world like Adii, one of the WooThemes founders, are a big inspiration. Outside of WordPress I’m interested in pretty much all of the successful business people. Anyone who started from nothing and made something amazing.
What one thing would you change about WP or WP themes if you could?
There’s two things that I think need focusing on. One is improving localisation tools – which I know is in progress. The other is simplification.
For non-technical users WordPress is still complex and so anything we can do to simplify it will be of benefit to everyone. There are a couple of featured plugins at the moment that I think have a lot of potential.
One is the Shortcake plugin – this makes using Shortcodes much more visual and displays their output in the visual editor. The second is the Front End Editor. Editing blog posts on the website itself would be true wysiwyg editing and would make it much easier for people to understand how their websites will look.