It’s not all bad for WordPress themes – is it?


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how themes, as we know them, are going to be ending, and then went on holiday. I wasn’t expecting such a big response but since then a lot of people have been talking about it on Twitter, and emailing me. Justin Tadlock even went and wrote this awesome post on the WPTavern with a more positive spin on things.

I wanted to reply to Justin, and some of the feedback I’ve received over the last couple of weeks, which I’ve done below.

Specifically responding to Justin

It sounds like, in large part, Justin agrees with me. Themes as we know them will be ending. His post focuses on my comment that sites will become more boring; which is something I stand by.

He argues that with the increase in customization potential we will actually take a step backwards to a more innocent time on the internet: when we created dodgy sites on Geocities (I once created a site on Geocities for coursework as part of my degree!) full of animated gifs, and auto playing midi tunes.

I’ve written before about the death of creativity and fun on the internet, and I think Justin is absolutely right: this will definitely open up the potential for this sort of thing. It will encourage the types of sites people used to make on Myspace (before it became boring) which is a great gateway for new users to learn about WordPress. It will also help with Automattic’s acquisition of Tumblr where this sort of thing will be more popular.

However, I am going to be 40 next year. These types of sites are not the types of sites I visit, and they are definitely not the types of sites that I will be able to sell themes or plugins to. My comment about boring sites was targeted more towards the types of sites I use most commonly and, perhaps selfishly, the ones that will allow me to continue earning a living on the internet.

Small businesses and blogs are how I have earned my living for the last 4 years, and I’ve been selling themes for even longer (about 12 years now). If these sites want to be taken seriously then I would recommend against plastering their sites with gifs, and midi music.

But equally, if they want to save money they will probably do the design themselves, and that means designs will likely be single column mountains of inconsistently designed and developed blocks. This was what I was referring to in my post.

Are themes going away?

I have no idea. I think that potentially they could be deprecated entirely, and instead reduced to CSS styles controlled by WordPress core. In the shorter term they will likely be simplified, eventually reduced to a handful of PHP files and some CSS, and JS.

This may increase creativity, but I suspect it will make things less attractive to theme shops since there will be less opportunity to stand out. Perhaps this is a good thing?

So I shouldn’t learn to make WordPress themes then?

I had someone send me a tweet saying they were no longer going to learn WordPress and focus on HTML and CSS.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Learning the fundamentals really well is always going to be worthwhile. It makes your skills a lot more transferable. But keep in mind that WordPress is huge. A lot of people use it, and it’s only growing, so knowing how WordPress works is a very worthwhile thing.

Learning to build themes in WordPress may feel like wasted effort but I think it will be a while before themes die entirely, and a lot of the concepts you learn can be used elsewhere.

Why don’t you try Wix?

I guess I could. I think it’s always a good thing to look outside of your own bubble and try new things. Even if you don’t use them you may learn something new or experience something that you can bring to your own platform.

But personally I’m not interested in learning any other online platform like Wix or Squarespace or Weebly. If I was to do anything then, personally, I will look at static site generators. I have quite a lot of experience with Jekyll, and Gatsby looks really nice (and has a lot of compatibility with using WordPress as a backend and has recently raised $15 million).

What can I do instead?

There’s still all sorts of opportunities in WordPress, one will just have to work out what they are. I like making stuff, so I think the next thing to do is look at plugins and consider how Gutenberg can be improved (Alex: Ben modestly doesn’t mention his new plugin Toolbelt is getting a lot of interest). In fact, this is exactly what I’m planning at the moment; a brand new plugin that will hopefully stop Guteberg sites from looking so samey.

You could also look at creating training or eBooks around building WordPress sites. The new editor means new opportunities for this type of content; building with WordPress is changing and we need to address this.

Or, you could move sideways and look at platforms like Shopify or Weebly – or use Gatsby and friends!

The potential is there – we just need to work out what fits within our knowledge and skillset and adapt to it.

Was it good/ useful/ a load of old rubbish? Let me know on Mastodon, or BlueSky (or Twitter X if you must).

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