How Do Post Formats Fit Into a Block Theme World?

Over the weekend, Nick Bohle asked Ellen Bauer of Elma Studio how post formats fit into the block-theming world. The question was a proposal for her a WordPress theme and FSE chat she held yesterday via Twitter Spaces. I could not attend and see if Bauer touched on the subject, but the question is something I have given a lot of thought to not that long ago.

Over the summer, I tweeted out a screenshot of an experiment around post formats. A part of me was trying to figure out if we could revive a dying feature, one I continue to use today.

Archive page in WordPress showing aside posts, each with a different-colored background.
Aside post format archive.

I have been using post formats since before they were a thing. “Asides” were one of the precursors to the feature landing in WordPress. I wrote my first on my personal blog back in 2006. I had borrowed some code that WordPress cofounder Matt Mullenweg had posted two years earlier. It was a concept he had borrowed from others.

For me, it was a way to give a unique layout to quick posts and links without all the beefiness of a long-form article.

In 2011, WordPress 3.1 launched with a new taxonomy. Users could choose between nine different formats for their posts, assuming their theme supported one or more of them. The goal was to allow theme authors to design custom layouts around each one.

For much of the community, it felt like WordPress was chasing Tumblr’s post content feature. The allure quickly wore off after it seemed to have hit a standstill beyond its initial release. Besides a few fixes and trivial enhancements under the hood, post formats never amounted to much.

They have remained a niche feature over the years. A few theme authors still add in support. Some of us old-school bloggers who have been using them in some form or fashion are still hanging on. But, post formats have been dead for a long time.

Therefore, I decided to try to make them work for block themes.

One of the most frustrating things I encountered with post formats in this block-based theme project was how powerless I felt over making them work “the old way.” The dynamic nature of classic theming meant that I could switch post content templates out on pages that listed multiple posts. Query Loop and its inner Post Template block do not allow me to show a different template for a quote or gallery-formatted post, for example.

This was frustrating because that part of the design process was out of my hands. If I wanted to do something as simple as show an entirely different design for an aside post within a mix of normal posts, I could not do so as the theme designer, at least not without doing some hacky workarounds.

My “light bulb” moment was when I realized that it was OK to not have that control. I needed to get outside of the mindset that the design was mine and mine alone. That is viewing creation through a classic theming lens. My approach was wrong. Instead, I had to start thinking about how to hand over these design tools to the user.

The question became: Can I create something that utilizes that original post format concept while giving users the freedom to do what they want?

Then, it dawned on me. The following is the response I tweeted to Jeff Chandler, who had asked if I thought post formats would work as patterns:

I think of blocks themselves as an evolution of post formats. Video, audio, embeds (basically cool links), quotes, etc. Most of the elements are already there. Patterns just give users an easy way to insert various designs, which could build off those blocks.

Maybe post formats as they currently exist are dead. However, the idea of designing a layout around specific types of posts is very much alive.

If users want to embed a single video into a post, it is just a matter of copying and pasting a link. To share a quote they found from their favorite author, they merely need to drop it into a Quote block. Other than chat posts (let’s just gloss over those entirely), the concept of post formats has simply been replaced with blocks.

However, theme authors still have a role to play. If all the elements for post formats have been essentially replaced by blocks themselves, that means designers can have a field day building patterns around them.

The WordPress patterns explorer with the Post Formats category open.  On the right, it shows three aside designs and one quote design.
Patterns built for post formats.

That led me to build off my original idea for asides, my favorite post format. Instead of offering a single design, I built three different patterns for users to choose from. End-users could mix and match how they appeared on the front end.

I also built a custom taxonomy-post_format-aside.html template to showcase them on their archive page. It merely displayed the published date and the post content, which the user controls.

I went back to the drawing board and built a quote pattern that I liked. Again, it would be up to the user whether they wanted that particular design. They could always go in a different direction.

A quote block within the WordPress editor.  It is wrapped in a Group block with a light blue background.
Quote block pattern and custom style.

In some ways, post formats were always limiting. The feature was never fleshed out, and there were only nine allowed formats. At the end of the day, each was merely a term within a taxonomy. There were never any rules about how it all was supposed to work. Maybe that is not such a bad thing. Now, posts can be anything users want them to be.

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8 responses to “How Do Post Formats Fit Into a Block Theme World?”

  1. Nick says:

    Hi Justin,

    Great that a tweet of mine triggered you to write down your thoughts on post formats. And yes, the Twitter Space – hosted by Ellen Bauer of https://elmastudio.de – was fun. It would have great if you had joined we could have discussed your thoughts on post formats live.

    Nick

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  2. wordsauce says:

    “ The feature was never fleshed out, and there were only nine allowed formats.”

    This got a legitimate LOL out of me, as if nine wasn’t overkill.

    I was theme-tinkering today when I stumbled upon a long lost line of commented code I kept around just in case a time traveler from Web 1.0 showed up one day and needed to post his formatted AIM chat logs with John Titor online.

    I hadn’t thought about post formats since the Tumblring. Truly the one thing our blogsister did better. So of course we had to eat her. Post formats were like an inelegant complication to a problem no body had that didn’t need a solution. Why have an image post format when you already have an attachment post type? Were they meant to be posts with only one image? If you attached more than one image on a an post format, isn’t that just a Gallery? What’s the difference, really, between a Gallery post-format post and a regular degular “standard” post type post format? Standard. So, so stupid.

    I actually played around in dev this weekend to see how one might use the link post format on a site that posts a lot of static links and really needs some kind of link library management. I told her WordPress had exactly what she thought she wanted built into its core, but just like those hateful eight post formats, it was depreciated in its day.

    Aside from all that, we did get one truly great thing out of post for Matts.

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  3. Zebulan says:

    To customize how posts of different post formats appear in a Query Loop, I think what’s needed is some sort of “If-statement” block that will render its contents if (and only if) a certain condition is met – e.g. the current post matches a specific post format. You could then use several of these “if” blocks to create different templates nested in the same Query Loop. The UI might be a bit tricky to balance between editor-friendly and WYSIWYG, but I’m sure the devs and designers could find a solution, given enough time.

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    • Yep, I really want to see something along those lines in the long term. I’m patient enough right now that I want us to get all the other stuff right first. It’ll definitely be a tough problem to solve in the editor. Of course, as you probably already know, there are applications outside of post formats for this too. Even just different templates based on the author, category, and all sorts of data can be useful in some site designs.

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  4. Bill Bennett says:

    Interesting this debate should happen now. I was tidying up some old posts which, back in the day, were on my site as asides and wondering how to treat them and if post formats were used in modern themes.

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  5. David says:

    I still think that post-format is a bad tumblr imitation and probably should never end up in core :thinking:

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  6. Brent Logan says:

    WordPress was so afraid of being “just a blogging platform” that it intentionally kneecapped post formats. It’s too bad, as being able to display links, quotes, statuses, images, videos, etc. differently than long-form blog posts would still be nice. Now everything gets a title, a date, categories and tags, and it’s only the post content that changes.

    The flip side of giving the user control over all this means that the user has to take control, and good luck changing themes.

    It was an opportunity lost.

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  7. Thanks for writing this post. I’m a heavy post formats user on my personal site and haven’t been able to quite wrap my brain around how they’re supposed to work in a block-based world. This gives me a starting point.

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