Empowering users – a new take on Themes in the Gutenberg WordPress era

Disclosure: These words represent my personal ideas and opinions only and in no way represent an official pathway for WordPress development.

WordPress started in 2003, and it’s been the biggest empowering tool that the internet has seen to date. I don’t say this lightly – there is a lot that has happened since 2003, and nothing in my mind has empowered people more than what WordPress did with its goal to democratize publishing. If you’ve never heard of WordPress before, that’s a good thing – WordPress can take many forms, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s right in front of you, behind 33% of the internet, and yet, you might now know it exists. That’s true freedom.

WordPress powers over 33% of the internet in 2019

Source: https://w3techs.com/technologies/details/cm-wordpress/all/all

Themes are a huge part of how WordPress works. They are a template to display your work.

Themes started as a beautiful idea – to create beautiful works of design to display your content, so that you, the publisher, can focus on what you want to focus the most – your words. The theme takes care of the way the content is showed – you can choose among a variety of themes, or designs, to display your work. This was a breakthrough paradigm shift that freed and empowered people to be able to publish online, without having to know the coding involved in how to display web pages, usually related to CSS, HTML, and other types of code language.

I remember creating my first website, back in the ’90s. It was a fan site for my favorite rock band, Guns N’ Roses. It was exciting to learn code, but it was hard! Plus the end result didn’t look that great 🙂 With WordPress, people could now publish without having to code in HTML. Wow!

Themes started as a way to enable people to publish, and they still are just that – beautiful works of art that someone or some team spent countless hours coding, so that you and I can just write a blog post, use that Theme, and voilà, have a beautiful post online we could never imagine we could create using all the CSS and HTML we don’t know 🙂

Themes are so empowering. But as with all things, there must be a negative aspect to it, right? Well, as with all things, there is – and it’s quickly shaping how the next iteration of WordPress will function as an empowering tool for people online. Allow me to explain.

A turning point

The problem with the current iteration of themes is that they offer certain pieces of functionality that may not exist in other themes. Example: One certain theme (let’s call it the Blue Theme) may have a fixed navigation bar at the top of the site. Now let’s say you chose a different theme for your site that has all the great things you were looking for (let’s call it the Red Theme) – a sidebar, a footer area to display some widgets – but it doesn’t have that fixed navigation bar at the top that you saw on the Blue Theme, and you don’t want to change your entire site to the Blue Theme, you just want the fixed navigation bar… In some cases, you just won’t be able to get the feature unless you do switch the entire site to the new theme, which might have other things you don’t necessarily like. In some cases, you might be able to change, remove or add the thing you want in your theme, but that will require coding… and now we are back to point we were just discussing at the beginning of this Post 🙂

So choosing the theme for your site can be sometimes a tough task. You find yourself balancing the things you want from the site (like a sidebar, fixed menu, footer area), with how the site will look like (the layout aspect of how blog posts are displayed for example). You compromise sometimes, and you go ahead. Sometimes you don’t have all the things in one specific theme; sometimes you do. When you don’t, you can look for help from a web designer, and get those changes implemented. But wouldn’t it be easier if themes were just a pre-arranged selection of features and layout you could use for your site, just to get you started, and then from there you had the freedom to add/remove features and layout aspects as you chose to, as you needed, without having to start again by selecting another theme? Wouldn’t it be better if pieces of functionality could just be added to any theme, like adding blocks to a preset template?

Enter Gutenberg

Gutenberg came to re-shape how we empower people to develop functionality on their site. It now powers the new WordPress editor, and represents a paradigm shift for the WordPress community. Functionality can be added to any post or page, by adding blocks. Every day more blocks are available – you can add a map, payment button, recent posts widget, and even a repeat visitor block to any page on your site.

As blocks reshape how we empower any WordPress site to offer the functionality the user needs, themes now can take a different approach.

I see themes now serving two purposes for WordPress users:

  • Providing a layout configuration for the site content, header, footer, etc. Think CSS here. This is where themes can continue to really shine in my opinion – from a design standpoint. Any and all design here should and would be possible to change/ override from a CSS standpoint so this could be seen as a nice “starting point” – never a “point of no return”. Select from a pre-designed pool of options for the design of your site, and make changes (if you want) from there.
  • Providing a pre-set layout of blocks for the site header, footer, and content areas. Think templates of blocks of functionality here. So a theme could come with a nice front page that represents a specific array of blocks, that could be customized further if wanted. You could have a pre-set template for a Contact page, an “About” page, a front page, and a header area. All of these could and should be editable, using the functionality that Gutenberg has brought to the table with the WordPress 5.1 release. Select from a pre-set layout of blocks that you like the most, and change (if needed) from there.

I see themes now as a way to save time (which in this day and age, we all want to 🙂 ). By selecting a beautifully-designed array of blocks that can represent the layout of your site, you can jump to creating your content right away, as you always could with WordPress. But if you want to change any of those layout blocks – you now can. You’re not faced with editing the theme PHP code – you just need to change the blocks. Go ahead and do it! It might take you time and effort, but it’s possible.

From a design-oriented, front-facing perspective, this is now as empowering as the original WordPress launch was, but this time, more focused on the layout, design, and functionality of the site. WordPress gives you theme options as a starting point – pick the design that you think matches the closest to your vision – and fine-tune from there.


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