2008 Theme Prediction Review


Early in 2008, Ian Stewart of ThemeShaper.com sent a question around to 11 people he believed were committed to thinking creatively about WordPress themes. The question was simply “What is the future of WordPress Themes?“. One of the eleven people to participate in this summary was yours truly. I’ve since participated in this years theme prediction post that Ian will be publishing some time in March. I won’t publish my prediction here but let’s see how well we did last year. Note that my commentary on the predictions made by others is my opinions based on how I’ve kept up with the theme community throughout 2008. If I’m wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments.

Robert Ellis
I think the future of WordPress themes will be a lot like the past. The vast majority of themes will still be garish mutations of Kubrick, but more cluttered, more pimped out with widgets, scripts and effects. There will still be premium themes that push the envelope in terms of built-in options and quality, but, the market will become saturated, setting off even more accusations of copying (as we’ve seen with magazine themes, though personally, I think most of them look like they were “inspired” by CNN). The competition will raise the bar for free themes. Fortunately, things like Sandbox and Blueprint will make it easier for hackers like me to be a bit tidier under the hood. Oh, and there will be a small, but thriving cadre of designers and would-be designers who will continue to experiment and create themes that don’t look like every other blog on the Net. These are the ones that I find most interesting (Derek Punsalan, for example).

Based on what I saw throughout 2008, this prediction is wrong. I noticed quite a few themes both free and premium that looked nothing like Kubrick. While I think Robert was correct in that premium themes would continue to push the envelope, that market has not reached a saturation point. In fact, I noticed more people who purely developed free themes move onto some sort of business model of their own. His point about a small cadre of designers creating themes which were experiments that didn’t mimic every other blog design available is correct.

Adam Freetly
I can’t really say much about the economics of premium WordPress themes, as I’ve never bought, sold, or seen stats on them. I will say the that the future of all “boxed”software, i.e., software that you buy a license of, rather than a support contract for, is on a downward trend. Selling a “boxed” design is even less likely to continue to be profitable. But that’s just hearsay.

I’m not sure where to fall on whether Adams prediction has come true or not. On the one hand, I still see plenty of premium theme authors selling licenses to use their products where the support is bundled into the license while others who completely abide by the GPL offer support as part of the purchase price. His last point on boxed designs becoming less profitable doesn’t appear to be happening as more of them seem to be cropping up all the time.

Cal Coleman
My take on the future of WordPress themes. Well I think I have to start this out by disagreeing with ThemeShaper and everyone else that says that WordPress themes are mandatory GPL. I’d like to explain why I disagree and the reason for even bringing it up. The reason I bring it up is simple, if every theme released is considered GPL, that will have a huge impact on any theme business model. At the moment it seems like most people respect theme authors copyrights and licenses, which is a good thing in my opinion. The reason I disagree is because there is no GPL code in a CSS file and most themers know that without the CSS file, you ain’t got much. I’ve also said on a few other websites that (in my opinion, I’m not a lawyer) just because you release that CSS file alongside GPL files (the PHP files) doesn’t mean that the CSS file has GPL code. So from my viewpoint, themes are really released in two parts and under two licenses.

Finally onto my opinion on the future of WordPress themes. I think we’re going to see more theme clubs start to crop up in place of individuals selling themes. Theme buyers can get a lot more for their money with a theme club. ThemeShaper mentioned RocketTheme and they’ve been doing business for quite a while now. We’ve also seen WPDesigner.com’s new theme club and It’s only a matter of time before there are several clubs available. The good thing is there are a lot of WordPress users so I think there’s probably room for a few clubs. But what about those people who don’t want to join a club or have no interest in premium themes, the DIYers. I think there are a lot of users out there who like to style their site themselves. Their blog is an extension of themselves, they don’t want it to look like everyone elses. I think this is when things like our newly released themer kit can come in and fill some of the gaps. Especially once people start to use it and really understand what it is and what it can do. Overall I’m very optimistic about the future of themes and WordPress itself. It’s popularity continues to grow and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Cal had to break the bubble and mention the GPL in his prediction. While Cal makes a valid argument regarding his thoughts on the GPL, I have not come across one WordPress theme that was released under a dual license. Also, truth be told, you do not have to comply with the GPL for your premium theme business model. I really don’t want the conversation on this post to go into another rant about GPL this and what can and can not be considered GPL code so I’ll just leave it at that.

His prediction though about more theme clubs becoming available is somewhat true. During 2008, we saw Justin Tadlock launch his Hybrid Theme club and to a certain extent, Brian Gardner’s StudioPress is sort of like a theme club. Small Potato’s theme club disappeared with the sale of WPDesigner.com and I have yet to see many more theme clubs open up to the public.

Jeff Chandler
Personally, I believe the next trend will focus around Widgets. I think the poster child for the future of WordPress themes revolves around the Shifter Theme system. Widgets give power back to the end user. As a theme author, you no longer have to provide detailed instructions on how to hard code a plugin or widget into the theme. Just make it a widget area, and the user can drag and drop the content element into an area that seems appropriate. I also believe there will be a trend towards themes offering an admin page which contains settings that control various aspects of the theme.

Hey, like Fox News I have to be fair and balanced right? Looking back at my own prediction, I have to say that it didn’t take off as I thought it would although the subject of themes becoming more widget based than anything else picked up quite a bit of steam at the end of 2008. However, I nailed the prediction of themes providing their own administration page containing options to configure the theme instead of doing it from within the code. Just about every theme I messed with during 2008 had its own admin page.

Armen Thomassian
Generally, I don’t like to make predictions, but for the sake of the conversation, I’ll throw out my thoughts. I think the future of WordPress Themes largely depends on future decisions made by Automattic. If they go ahead and announce a WordPress Themes Marketplace, you’ll find those who can create decent designs, and aren’t already making money from ‘Premium’ or custom made designs, will create their best for the Marketplace.

Therefore, in 12 months time, if this all goes ahead, I would have to say that the available quality of free WordPress themes will most likely go down; at least, the quantity will. Having said that, I imagine there will be a few who are making money, and will still release a freebie now and again. I plan to release a high quality WordPress theme at least bi-monthly at Alpha, so all is not lost ;)

With more and more people using WordPress to develop niche sites and using it to further their business, the importance of making yourself stand out will become a necessity. I don’t think this will make the free WordPress themes less popular, but as blogging grows as a medium, there will be a greater demand for custom work.

Well, Automattic has yet to officially open a premium theme Marketplace although as Matt said during the special interview I conducted with him, they have everything in order, they were just trying to work out the distribution kinks. Armen’s predictions were based on the fact that the marketplace would be around and so, his prediction goes out the window.

Alister Cameron
We’re at the junction of a number of exciting developments.

Firstly, there are microformats. These continue to develop and challenge designers to take semantic markup (in general) more seriously. hFeed is pretty stable, and hRelease may make an entrance of sorts, and there will be many more…

Secondly, there is jQuery. It is the recently accepted JavaScript library for WordPress, which is something I have hoped to see happen for a long time. The challenge is now for both plugin authors to update their plugin code, which will usually mean leaner, cleaner JS code; and for themers to look more closely at AJAX, at DHTML client-side funkiness, etc. jQuery make a lot more stuff a lot easier to implement.

Thirdly, CSS3 will push its way into the spotlight more and more, challenging WordPress theme designers to push the boundaries in many more ways, and get creative.

Fourthly, the user-agent now matters a lot! The iPhone and cell/mobile phones have reached saturation level usage and it’s time for WordPress themers to look at ways to accommodate these different user agents. I am personally not excited about the .mobi TLD, preferring smart user-agent-specific content delivery. However in themes, this approach will require elegant conditional output code in templates, which is a new concept to most designers.

Fifthly, we all need to take language localization more seriously. And that doesn’t have to be any harder than faithfully using _e(), etc. I have always felt there is a huge business opportunity for someone to do blog post translation in a cheap yet “human” way. Machine translation won’t cut it, but the price of human translation needs to come down, while maintaining decent quality. If someone cracks this opportunity, themers will want to take advantage of this for themes.

Sixthly, there is community expectation. With every theme released, people want more. And they don’t want to pay much for it. So I think themes will need to become more focussed: the blog, the magazine, the newspaper, the tumblelog, the company webpage, etc. We’re seeing that happen already, but it will mature a great deal.

Finally, there are CSS frameworks and grid systems, which have the potential to achieve what I’ve at least attempted with Vanilla: a single theme with many layout options. Whether with the YUI grids, or Blueprint, or any other CSS framework, the goal is the same – to make a theme “flexible” for non-tech, non-designer users. I want and expect this aspect of theming to mature a great deal, one way or another.

There is more I could add, but I’m more interested to read what others have to say :)

Alister Cameron makes a few technical predictions and so, it’s hard for me to verify whether they have come true or not. But I think microformats have not made a significant push into WordPress themes during 2008. Alister’s thoughts on jQuery have been spot on as numerous plugin and theme developers have implemented Ajax like qualities thanks in large part to jQuery. As for CSS3, I can’t say I’ve seen much in the way of CSS3 heavy themes. Do you know of any?

Alister makes a point that cellphones and mobile devices have reached saturation levels which means theme designers will need to look at ways to accommodate these different user agents. He also mentions that this approach will require elegant conditional output code in templates. Again, a scope beyond my knowledge but I have not seen much coverage related to the subject in 2008.

Alister’s fifth point in his long series of predictions talks about theme localization. I can say that I’ve seen this issue brought up numerous times during 2008 and there have been efforts afoot to make this process easy. It seems to be a relevant and continually discussed subject so I think Alister was on to something here.

Last but not least, Alister talks about CSS frameworks and grid systems. His prediction calls for theme frameworks to mature a great deal and while I believe they have, they still need to mature even more. But it is great to see that not only do we have the Thematic framework but Carrington, Vanilla, Hybrid, sort of defunk Sandbox and Ptah Dunbar’s WPFramework. So he hit the nail on the head with that one.

Justin Tadlock
The future of WordPress themes is definitely bound to be something pleasantly stunning. I’ve tried to raise the bar with customization and will continue doing so.

Ease of use will/should be one of the next big topics. As developers continue to add more and more features to razzle and dazzle perspective users, we need to also keep in mind that the average user doesn’t know what widgets, theme options, or custom fields are. They just want their site to look pretty.

We need to deliver.

My biggest concern is making sure users can actually use the stuff that I’m putting out there. If they can’t, then what’s the point? It’s easy as a developer to forget that what might seem like an insignificant thing to us could potentially turn a new user away from the WordPress community by making it too difficult. What it all comes down to is bringing new users into the community and keeping them.

I do hear some talk of moving into designs for specific niches, so theme developers could cater to particular users. I think this is a great idea, which could be a nice trend as we’ve seen with magazine-styled themes. Users want something that works for them before unwrapping the packaging.

Another thing I’ve read, and have tried moving toward with my Structure theme, is using widgets for everything. Widgets are easy to use and don’t have to be placed in a sidebar. Giving the user something they can change without touching a piece of code will be a powerful force behind some of the more complex themes.

I’m really interested in seeing where the paid theme market goes. Although I don’t participate in this part of the community, I see those developers as leaders in the WordPress field, and they continue to push the rest of us to come up with something just as good or better. Then, those of us on the other side push them to come up with innovative ideas.

Innovation, I suppose, should be my next point. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of different things that can be done with the system but there’s a lot of untouched potential. Integration with other services is definitely growing as we can now easily add video, audio, and all types of things to our blog. I’m not sure what the next trend or fad will be exactly, but it will be driven by the mixing of different ideas in new ways.

I don’t want to see this system of communication ever die. WordPress is a perfect platform of innovation, and I’d like to continue contributing to the project by keeping people involved in the art of blogging. Theme development seems to be my current obsession, so that’s what I’ll offer back to the community.

In conclusion, I want to say that I’m not entirely sure what the future holds for WordPress themes. I do know that it should be about what’s best for the user because that’s who we’re developing for. It should be about keeping people excited about blogging and keeping the communication open between different cultures. At the end of the day, we need to provide the best platform with the greatest ease of use possible.

Justin’s prediction is summed up by concentrating on the ease of use. Throughout 2008, the various themes I interacted with contained admin pages but at times, the admin pages were too much. While I personally enjoyed the fact that the theme could be entirely configured from the back end, I sometimes felt the theme options page to be overwhelming. What should have made the theme easier to use turned into a time sink.

Justin also talked about themes moving down the road of widgets. Just widgetize everything in the theme so that end users could change things around without touching a piece of code. Many themes seem to have gone down this road but a vast majority of them apparently have not seen the light. As Justin mentions, Widgets do not have to be in a sidebar, they can be used anywhere the appropriate code is written in a theme. Only a few themes that I know of really tapped into this idea.

Justin also predicted innovation. I can think of a couple themes where I witnessed innovation such as iThemes Flexx theme. I believe there was progress overall in the WordPress theme community but not a lot of innovation. We still see a large majority of themes coming out with the magazine look and there are only so many different content box combination’s to choose from making innovation that much more challenging. Overall, I think Justin’s predictions were more right than wrong.

Nathan Rice
Here’s how I see it: Things we know for sure… 1) WordPress will continue to gain in popularity and usage and 2) people buy stuff, even if there is a free alternative.

Now, the mistake that people are making is thinking that Premium WordPress designers are making a couple thousand dollars per premium theme in sales, MAX. This is completely untrue. Premium themes sell very well. One could easily make $10,000 or more from a quality premium theme and some decent marketing. Release 5 of these, and you’re making a decent yearly salary, all for few weeks/months of work and ongoing support and maintenance.

And thus, the market saturation.

Here’s what’s going to happen. The Premium theme marketplace middle class will cease to exist. The popular theme designers will keep selling well, making thousands at $100-$200 per sale, and an underclass will emerge, selling themes for $20-$50 each (most going closer to $20). The underclass will make money from the bulk of sales. The upper class will make money from their reputation and popularity, perhaps even loyalty.

A few will join the ranks of the upper class, but they’ll do it the old fashioned way… they’ll release quality, innovative themes for free, bypassing the underclass altogether, building a reputation, offering free, high quality alternatives to the upper class themes, draw in new customers and steal a few from the established designers. But make no mistake, this will only rarely happen. Most will find that their work is not up to a high enough standard of quality, and will join the underclass selling themes for $20.

Premium themes aren’t going away, but they will change form. While currently we all are operating in a middle class market, it will split… sooner rather than later.

While Nathan’s overall prediction sounded pretty good at the time, the reality is that it didn’t happen. Their doesn’t appear to be an upper class of premium theme authors selling personal theme licenses at $100-300 per site. Instead, the average price point for a personal site license for a premium theme is between $50-80$. While a few are undercutting these guys by selling licenses at $39 or so, the sellers do not appear to be as fragmented as predicted. I think Nathan’s prediction has merit but in 2008, it simply didn’t happen.

Sunny @ HeadSetOptions.org
WordPress themes will continue to be produced as long as self hosted WordPress users continue to use themes. The rate of theme production is neither proportional nor in anyway related to the rate growth of self hosted WP sites. Its market is unregulated and may seem to have hit a slump, but I foresee it being in vogue again once the Theme Viewer is back online.

As for paid/premium themes, the concept is here to stay. To understand that, we need to examine two very fundamental aspects these themes offer that no free theme (irrespective of quality) can.

Since there is a cost associated with these themes:

1. Usage is limited; meaning the chances of ALL your friends using the same theme is slim.

2. Offers a false sense of cyber legitimacy; meaning, if you paid for your theme, you must be serious about your work!

In short, I do not see the end of either free or paid themes anytime soon. But then again, I did not foresee myself being involved in fighting Global Warming either, so you never know.

Sunny’s prediction can easily be summed up by saying free themes as well as premium themes will not go away anytime soon. He was right in 2008 and if you ask me, that is a prediction that could be right year after year.

Brian Gardner
With the exponential rise of WordPress as the leading blog platform of choice, the number of WordPress themes (whether it be free or paid) is also on the increase. As developers uncover new ways to code and display content, WordPress blogs are now becoming WordPress sites. This is something that is starting to appeal to small business and companies who thought that WordPress was only capable of being a blog platform, and not a means of content management system. Having said that, the demand for more complex themes which accomplish more than the typical blog, only results in the increasing demand for both premium and custom themes.

Brian Gardner’s prediction is another one which hit the nail on the head. One things for sure, WordPress which is still the number one blog publishing platform of choice is really starting to be used as a CMS by many businesses/people. Thus, we’ve seen a number of more complex themes released especially near the end of 2008.

David Yeiser
The future of WordPress themes will be in expanding the idea of what constitutes a ‘theme.’ Currently a theme is viewed as an overall look and feel for your blog, which of course is what a theme is supposed to be. But as the market continues to become more and more saturated what is different is going to be what gets the attention (and all the perks that come with that). Moving forward, to be different will require theme authors to think outside the normal CSS and HTML constructs of a theme. Even having a laundry list of features doesn’t always set you apart from the crowd. It’s easy to copy if someone has the time and a similar skill set. Being different will mean presenting WordPress functionality in a new way, not necessarily adding anything new, just problem solving and out-of-the-box ideas packaged into a single download. The recent Prologue theme by Automattic is a solid example of what I’m trying to describe. Do I like that? Not necessarily, I would rather the deciding factor be design only, but it’s still exciting.

David’s look into the future of WordPress themes falls in line with a previous prediction about innovation. I agree with David that we are reaching a point where theme authors really need to think outside of the box when it comes to CSS and HTML which make up most of a WordPress theme. I think David hits a great point and something I’d like to see happen in the near future and that is, theme authors who provide problem solving ideas into a single package. He cites Prologue as an example. Prologue is WordPress but provides functionality similar to Twitter. Prologue is an example of thinking about WordPress outside of the box. It sure will be exciting once a theme author or two comes around and comes up with some really innovative ways to use WordPress for more than just blogging.


So that has been my long winded 2008 theme prediction review commentary. Some of the predictions were right on while others just didn’t happen which is to be expected. I look forward to reading everyone’s predictions for the year 2009 with regards to WordPress themes. Keep an eye on Themeshaper.com for the post.

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