A Chat With Anders Norén on Finding Inspiration for WordPress Theme Design

When we last interviewed Anders Norén, he was the new kid on the block with a handful of successful WordPress themes. Norén, a communications student from Umeå, Sweden, had just started tossing around the idea of pursuing WordPress theme development as a serious hobby. In the span of about one year, he has released eight free themes on WordPress.org, with a cumulative 189,452 downloads.

Norén seems to be equipped with a never-ending fountain of inspiration for new themes. His Rams theme, which bears a few similarities to the upcoming Twenty Fifteen default theme, was inspired by Dieter Rams, a German industrial designer who is well known for his innovative, unobtrusive, and timeless product design.

I spoke with him regarding Hoffman, his latest free blogging theme and discovered that his design inspiration primarily comes from the recognition of others’ artistic talents.

“Hoffman was named after the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who sadly passed away in February this year,” he said. “I was devastated when I heard the news. I’ve been a huge fan of Hoffman for years. He was never the traditional leading man, but he always gave memorable performances,” Norén said, linking to one of his favorites.

hoffman

While many designers have inspiration come in the form of images, dreams, and sketches on paper napkins, Norén’s sparks of creativity for theme design arrive as clarion pieces of the design as a whole. He builds upon these fragments until the theme starts to take shape.

“Usually, is starts with a pretty clear idea of a single aspect of the design. With Rams, it was the interplay between the colors mint green, graphite and grey. I stumbled over the color scheme on the website of a Dutch advertising agency and instantly fell in love with it,” he said.

“With Radcliffe, I wanted to do a theme with fullscreen featured images. With my upcoming theme Fukasawa, I wanted to do a really clean design built with a media-heavy grid in mind. When that single detail is in place, the rest usually grows naturally around it,” Norén told the Tavern. His approach is interesting in that instead of trying to formulate pieces for a larger idea, he starts with the smaller pieces until they form a unified concept to drive the design.

Norén’s Secret: Jump Into the Code as Soon as Possible

Once inspired, Norén doesn’t sit idly courting the muse but rather moves directly into action, prototyping his theme idea in the browser. “Once I have an idea, I try to get started on the HTML/CSS/jQuery as soon as possible,” he said. “I rarely do any sketches – by hand or in Photoshop – before I jump into the code.”

Norén’s “design in the browser” approach makes sense with people increasingly accessing content on mobile devices. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to find if out if your idea is viable as a theme. “I find it hard to know whether a design will work until I have it up and running in Safari,” he said. “Most of the designs don’t work. My list of discarded themes is a lot longer than the list of published ones.”

Releasing Free Themes as a Vehicle for Personal Creativity

design

A WordPress.org theme developer has the luxury of designing for himself, something that Norén isn’t yet ready to give up. I asked him why he continues to release free themes and if he plans to make a career out of web development.

“In the beginning, I think a lot of it came down to insecurity,” he admitted. “I wasn’t sure my themes did enough or did it good enough for anyone to pay for them, so I released my themes for free on WordPress.org instead.

“That said, once I started releasing themes on WordPress.org, I realized that it was a lot of fun. The attention and appreciation of others is nice, of course, but the best part is seeing someone putting your theme to good (or unexpected) use,” he said.

“Also, by not being dependent on my themes for income, I can keep building the themes I want to make rather than the ones I think people would pay for. I don’t think I’m willing to give that up just yet.”

Giving himself over to his hobby of theme development is the path that led Norén to discover that his true passion lies in designing and developing for the web.

“When you interviewed me six months ago, I didn’t really have any intentions to actually work as a web designer,” Norén said. “I was content to keep it as a hobby. Over the course of the past six months, I’ve come to realize that that isn’t the case anymore. I’ll be looking for a job as a web designer after I’m finished with my BA in June next year.”

Although he’s already been approached by several companies, he is committed to finishing his studies before pursuing a career in development. “I’ve already had some job offers, some for contract work, some for employment, but I would kick myself for all eternity if I bailed on my studies with less than a year remaining,” Norén said. “That said, if Automattic got in touch about a job as a theme wrangler, I would probably have a hard time turning them down.”

Looking to the Future

Outside of his upcoming Fukasawa release, Norén doesn’t have any other themes in progress due to work and studies taking up most of his time. That hasn’t stopped ideas from buzzing around in his head. “I would like to build something using the new portfolio post type included in Jetpack, and it’d be interesting to build a business theme for WordPress.org as well,” he said, noting that the selection of themes in that category is still very limited. Although he won’t be able to work on themes until December, he hopes to build another to release before the holidays are over.

Anders Norén is knocking it out of the park with his continual stream of beautiful free themes. While many theme developers struggle to produce original works, Norén has found the keys to standing out from the crowd, as evidenced by the fact that he is rapidly closing in on 200,000 downloads on WordPress.org. With an impressive portfolio already in hand and a seemingly inexhaustable supply of design inspiration, Norén will enter the work force well-prepared for the stiff competition that accompanies commercial WordPress theme design.

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23 Comments


  1. I was thinking this would make a wicked podcast episode.

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  2. This is a nice story, but it should be pointed out that some of Ander’s themes look a lot like copies of Mike McAlister’s work at Array. For example, Baskerville looks like Publisher. Hoffman looks like Pocket. Fukasawa looks like Designer. His theme pages even look a lot like the Array theme pages, and his theme demo content is similar.

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    1. They most certainly are not copies and really don’t look that similar to me, especially in the details.

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    2. In all fairness, I did give myself the liberty to be inspired by McAlisters demo content – especially the concept of a “Style Guide” (markup elements) page, which I pretty much stole outright from his free theme Editorial.

      That liberty did not extend to the themes themselves, however. He is doing great work though, so I appreciate the comparison.

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    3. Hey folks,

      Nice writeup on Anders! It’s refreshing to see so much emphasis being placed on design lately.

      To be perfectly honest, Chris isn’t the first person to point out to me that Anders’ themes may have been inspired by some of my work. While they are not exact copies, it’s also not hard to see that there are more than a few similarities to be a coincidence. ;)

      For example, Baskerville, which looks like Publisher (http://cl.ly/Xaxr), even has some of the same demo content and post titles. I would also agree that Hoffman and Fukasawa have notable similarities between Pocket and Designer.

      I’m definitely not calling out Anders or trying to create any waves here. He seems to be a creative young lad and I’m sure he’ll do very well in the WordPress space. But because it has been brought to my attention, I thought I should probably acknowledge it.

      “Also, by not being dependent on my themes for income, I can keep building the themes I want to make rather than the ones I think people would pay for.”

      One note about this quote is that some folks, including myself, *are* entirely dependent on themes and their uniqueness for income. Design is my bread and butter, and it’s my job to make themes I want to make that also happen to be ones people will pay for. And because of this, you could see why myself and others might take note of notably similar themes being downloaded for free by potentially hundreds of thousands of people. ;)

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      1. With respect, I think that the design elements are similar in the way that many designs follow a certain trend(s) at any given time. If he is influenced by your themes, which he readily admits, he is clearly also influenced by the many other clean designs that are circulating in the design world.
        No one has a monopoly on minimalism, cleanness, and clarity in theme design. And, as Bootstrap has proven, there are only so many ways to deviate from a certain style.
        I have followed your themes for some time, and now I am enjoying Anders’s themes as well. His are wonderful addition to the world of free WP Themes. While I do purchase themes, I would like the option to use beautiful themes for free as well.
        Just because his themes are being “downloaded for free by potentially hundreds of thousands of people,” this does not mean that professional theme developers are losing money. If anything, it moves people towards professional themes like yours when they realize that they can have premium options for a theme that they already really like.
        I did not see any direct correlation between the two designs. And, plenty of people use the same dummy content.
        I like both of your designs. Perhaps we can move away from the negative strain of this discussion.

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      2. Hi Lauren, thanks for your thoughts.

        “If he is influenced by your themes, which he readily admits”

        He actually said he wasn’t inspired by the themes, just the demo content.

        “No one has a monopoly on minimalism, cleanness, and clarity in theme design.”

        Definitely not, and I would never claim to have ownership over any particular style, just my own. Add in the GPL and it’s basically impossible to own anything, even your own style or creativity.

        “Perhaps we can move away from the negative strain of this discussion.”

        As I said in my comment above, which I composed with respect to Anders, the intention isn’t to cast stones, rather share my opinion on the matter, to which I believe I have the right to do. Open discussion is a beautiful and important thing, even if it’s a sticky subject to address. https://wptavern.com/why-comments-still-matter

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      3. I totally agree with you on all points, especially about open discussion. It just seemed that your response was rather passive-aggressive, even though it is clear that you don’t mean to be “cast stones.” Putting up a comparison shot is, I think, quite suggestive. Also, your last paragraph implies that Anders’s desire to provide free themes is somehow potentially problematic for professional WordPress theme developers.
        So, while I completely share your sentiments about open discussion, I think that one should be forthright about nature of his comments. Even the tone and word choices (he is a “creative young lad”) count in such discussions; the latter comment seems condescending to me. In sum, your response does have the effect of “creating waves” or “casting stones” in that it calls attention to similarities in both designs and suggests (however subtly) that Anders’s designs are copies –to some extent– of yours.
        However, I say this with respect and with the understanding that I may be reading too much into your comments.

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      4. “your last paragraph implies that Anders’s desire to provide free themes is somehow potentially problematic for professional WordPress theme developers”

        This is not what I was implying. The implication was that if free themes are too closely designed after commercial counterparts, there can be a conflict there, right? Releasing unique, free themes is great and I encourage developers to do it. I, too, spend time creating and supporting free themes on the WordPress.org repository.

        “Even the tone and word choices (he is a “creative young lad”) count in such discussions; the latter comment seems condescending to me”

        I’m sorry it seems that way, but it’s not my intention. I think anyone familiar knows that my tone is generally encouraging and positive! It’s unfortunate that it was read that way. I’m interested in having a positive, constructive discussion, I have no other intentions.

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      5. Hi Mike,

        “For example, Baskerville, which looks like Publisher (http://cl.ly/Xaxr), even has some of the same demo content and post titles. I would also agree that Hoffman and Fukasawa have notable similarities between Pocket and Designer.”

        I did borrow demo content from your themes, and I admitted to as much earlier. Pretty much all of my themes have a demo post called “Drink more coffee, developers” (usually the first/the sticky post), going back to Lingonberry and Lasseter which I released late last summer. When I create a new theme, I usually export the demo content from the previous demo site and import it to the new one, so that post is included in Baskerville (and Rams, Garfunkel, Wilson, Hemingway, etc).

        As for the themes themselves, however, there’s no way for me to prove a negative. The only thing I can do to disagree with the similarities you point to, and maintain that I didn’t steal your themes – words you don’t use, but certainly imply.

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  3. Anders’ process with theme dev is a lot like mine, which is not surprising considering he’s one of the few theme authors that I’m actually following.

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  4. I feel Anders’ themes are really cranking up the quality in the official theme repository. For a long time , there hasn’t been much in the way of quality themes available there, but that is slowly changing now.

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  5. Copying GPL code isn’t a crime, and some say it’s not even ethically problematic. But if nobody is claiming *unattributed* GPL code was lifted from Array’s themes, then nobody has anything to whine or complain about at all. Especially if they’re doing business focused on providing long term support for their themes. A business like that has nothing to worry about from students and hobbyists with no business model who may be here today, gone tomorrow.

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      1. Well that’s Facebook. If they don’t like what some college student is doing they can crush him like a bug for whatever reason. But it sounds like “Smells Like Facebook” was clearly a “clone” of Facebook’s design and copied a lot of their code — which is not GPL. So that’s completely and totally different.

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      2. Not really. Facebook never released their design as GPL, so they had every right to attack that developer.

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    1. While support is surely the cornerstone to a successful theme shop, users simply don’t line up to buy themes based solely on this. Potential buyers may not know how great your support is until after you’ve made the sale and served them. That’s where a uniquely designed product can set you apart and pique the interest of potential buyers.

      It’s becoming increasingly harder to see where the GPL stops and ownership of original design starts, and the community remains undecided. Even if it was technically legal to copy a design, why encourage users to do that instead of encouraging them to explore design and maybe learn something in the process? Simply doing it because the GPL allows it is lazy and destructive to the community.

      “A business like that has nothing to worry about from students and hobbyists with no business model”

      Merely submitting themes to the WordPress.org repository can be a solid business model in itself, and some treat it that way. Those themes are exposed to millions of people, and with the right themes you could amass a solid following to build a business off of. Look no further than Anders, who has served themes to ~200,000 users.

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      1. This is the real issue, isn’t it:

        It’s becoming increasingly harder to see where the GPL stops and ownership of original design starts, and the community remains undecided.

        I don’t believe the motives of every person who allegedly creates or uses “unoriginal” designs can be so easily judged as “lazy and destructive to the community,” whatever that means. This is really just about one person now. You seem to believe Anders crossed a line that made his work more derivative than original in some key respects. Since he presents himself as a WordPress designer/developer and has distributed his work for free and received a lot of praise, this probably feels like you’re being ripped off creatively and potentially financially. I get that, but nobody has actually shown that any “unoriginality” in this case involves derivative code and/or graphic design. What line was crossed?

        Maybe some type of common standard can be worked out through focused, civil dialogue about actual scenarios like this. Is there a real problem? If so, what is the solution? Developing broad consensus is probably the only path to a solution. Even if a legal answer is achievable, it can only be achieved by someone spending a lot of time and money on it. That doesn’t happen much in the open source world; if you have to go that far does it make sense to be using an open source license at all?

        My point about business models was not that 200k downloads of a free theme can’t be grown into a business — it can. Maybe Anders will do that, maybe he won’t. For now there is no business directly connected to supporting his themes and the people who use it. So he’s not competing with anyone who does that, unless they aren’t marketing themselves as valuable long-term support partners and instead communicate the idea that they are selling a (non-proprietary) theme product just like any other.

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  6. I really like Anders Norén style. I hope that he can meet a few members of the Automattic Theme Wrangler team to see what they have to say regarding his work. Automattic doesn’t seem like the kind of company to actively go out and hire specific people. With that said, I highly suggest Norén put in an application to Automattic once his studies have concluded. The worst thing that can happen is he doesn’t make it the first time around.

    By the way, I clicked the link to that Youtube performance of PSH in Charlie Wilson’s War. I lost a half hour of reading time from clicking on related videos :P

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