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Gutenberg Phase 2 and the Future of WordPress Themes

As someone who makes a living selling themes the recent outline for Phase 2 of Gutenberg is is an interesting article to read. I’ve been wondering about the long term future of themes for a while; and to be honest I am quite pessimistic. But first, let’s look at it from a website owners perspective.

Phase 2 is the continuation of converting WordPress over to a block based editor. Widgets, and menus, will become blocks. This means that all widgets can be used when building posts and pages; and equally that blocks can be used when building sidebars.

For users this is fantastic! Everything that is possible in one place, will be possible in others. In the future it will be even better. As displayed in the section titled ‘Editing blocks in-context’, it is likely that front-end editing will be coming to WordPress. Presumably this will mean you can browse your site, press edit post/ edit page, and then edit almost anything right there.

This will be so much easier – as a user I am really excited for it.

But themes; how will they fair?

My concern with the move to WordPress being a site builder is that WordPress sites will end up being a single, boring, homogenous layout. One, maybe two, columns, with loads of blocks stacked on top of each other. Since the people building the websites will not be designers, creative and original designs will be considerably reduced.

If we look at the findings and recommendations from the recent user research session we will see that one of the things that was found is confusion between layout and styles. The structure of the pages, and the fonts and colours used.

The way I interpreted this is that the suggestion is for WordPress to take care of the page structure and themes would be limited to styles. This matches with suggestions from ThemeShaper, where it’s suggested that themes could be defined in a json file (presumably with some CSS). It also pairs up with conversations I have had with the WordPress.com team, who are leading the development of Gutenberg.

As someone who has been involved with WordPress theme development since 2005 (14 years!). I have seen a lot of things change. My first theme, Regulus, included an admin panel that let you show and hide elements of the sidebar. This was before widgets existed. As far as I know Regulus was the first public theme to include a control panel.

My first premium theme was Mimbo Pro; a theme that showed WordPress could be used for more than just blogs. Featured images had been included in themes before (using custom fields) but we included automatic image resizing with TimThumb. Quite an innovation at the time and soon used in many other themes.

But, how can we innovate when themes are, potentially, going to be a JSON file?

It’s really hard to do creative, innovative things with a platform that is changing as fast as WordPress is at the moment. I’m a fan of change, and think the coming changes are mostly positive for users. But to build a product based business on top of a platform that is changing as much as WordPress is, is not easy.

This story first appeared in MasterWP, a weekly newsletter for WordPress professionals.

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Ben View All

Ben is a lifelong Nintendo fan who also likes to build websites, and develop games. He also buys way too much Lego.

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