Introduction To Underscores: A WordPress Starter Theme With Konstantin Obenland

Without much in the way of advertising, Underscores has become a popular choice for WordPress theme developers. To learn more about it, I asked Automattic employee, Konstantin Obenland, @obenland on Twitter, to explain what the theme is, how it got its name, and how people can contribute to the project.

A Starter Theme Created by Automattic
A Starter Theme Created by Automattic

Why was Underscores created and how did it get its name?

Ian Stewart tells the tale in detail in the announcement post for Underscores, but the gist of it is that Toolbox, the theme we used as a starter theme at the time, could not be updated without backwards compatibility concerns, and needed more drastic improvements. Since the fork underscores the new themes we build, we called it the Underscores Theme, or _s for short.

Without a lot of advertising, Underscores seems to be a starting point for many developers. Why do you think that is?

That is true, we haven’t done a lot of marketing for it yet. I think what developers really like is its simplicity and adherence to WordPress standards.

Underscores comes from the combined experience of building themes for millions of users on, and creating default themes that ship with WordPress and have to work in all environments. This is paired with excellence in theming best practices and just enough functionality, markup, and styles to get started.

This Is Underscores Looks Like Activated Without Modifications
This Is What Underscores Looks Like Activated Without Modifications

When you download Underscores, there is very little to tear down or take away.  You can almost immediately dive into building your theme. We put a lot of thought into keeping it as lean as possible and still do when making decisions on new features and enhancements.

Would you consider Underscores a starter theme, theme framework, or something else?

Underscores is a starter theme. It is meant to be worked with, tweaked, and styled. It is not a framework or a parent theme to be extended. It is supposed to become a theme of its own, when finished.

What is the ratio of Automattic developers contributing patches to Underscores versus contributions from the wider community?

A Sampling Of Contributors To Underscores
A Sampling Of Contributors To Underscores

There have been 64 contributors on GitHub so far although GitHub only counts contributors who contributed through a Pull Request. Out of those 64, less than 20 are current or former Automatticians. I don’t have stats on the amount of Issues or Pull Requests opened, but the 2:1 ratio feels true for that too, maybe even 3:1.

What projects does Automattic use Underscores for?

O2 Is The Successor To The P2 Theme
O2 Is The Successor To The P2 Theme

We use it for pretty much all projects where it makes sense to use a theme. Be it a new theme for the Theme Repository, a vertical like Portfolios, or a landing page for users of a certain mobile device. We even use it internally for the O2 theme, the successor of P2.

Are themes more likely to be approved in a theme review if Underscores is used to build the theme?

Possibly. But not for the sake of using Underscores. Rather because the code quality of those themes is more likely to meet our expectations. Themes can be based on any kind of framework or starter theme as long as the code quality is right. We certainly don’t disqualify themes for not using it.

What examples do you have of beautiful sites designed with Underscores?

Have Baby. Need Stuff! Built Using Underscores
Have Baby. Need Stuff! Built Using Underscores

There are plenty! Let’s start with Twenty Fourteen, the latest default theme. It was converted from Further, a premium theme based on _s. Every free theme and every premium theme by Automattic launched on in the last two years, are based on _s too. The official homepage of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Jaquith’s Have Baby. Need Stuff!, this ebay landing page, and the Western University site are all made from _s. Not a lot of commonalities between them, even though they have the same foundation.

If you had to convince a developer to use Underscores, what would you tell them?

Take advantage of the 1000 hour head start tutorial to building your theme. Underscores is a proven, reliable foundation to start from, built with the knowledge and experience from running themes on millions of sites, and creating default themes for WordPress Core. If you feel _s is too bare bones for you or find yourself adding the same libraries every time you start a new project, fork _s on GitHub, add the desired libraries and use your fork as the starting point!

How can people get involved to help improve the theme?

We maintain _s on GitHub to make it as easy as possible for people to contribute. Involvement can range from sharing opinions about existing proposals, to creating a new issue with improvement suggestions, to opening pull requests with code changes.

What one thing do you want people to know about Underscores?

You really don’t need to know any PHP or be a programmer to be able to use Underscores. As long as you’re somewhat comfortable with CSS and some HTML, Underscores can help you build the next great WordPress theme!

Stats Related To Underscores

It’s worth noting that the following statistics are for a theme aimed at developers with little to no marketing efforts behind it.

  • 185,000 recorded downloads from since September 5, 2012 although it’s likely 250,000 to 300,000 in total.
  • A total of 15,500 downloads for all of March
  • Downloaded every 3.3 minutes. This excludes zip downloads from GitHub, forks, and theme updates.
  • It’s the 17th most starred PHP project on GitHub:
  • It is 19th in the list of trending PHP repositories on GitHub this month.

If you’ve used Underscores for a project or client website, send us a link in the comments.


15 responses to “Introduction To Underscores: A WordPress Starter Theme With Konstantin Obenland”

  1. Underscores has become my go-to for all theme building except for ones where I use my framework, which was also, believe it or not, built with Underscores as the starting point. And of course, I’ve built variations of Underscores including the starter theme you all featured here last week.

    I like it so much that I’ve created a WordPress theme building course that uses Underscores as an example throughout. My readers really connect with it.

  2. Thanks Jeff for featuring _s and the tip for forking it when it has the libraries you would like to use as the starting point for a new theme or website project.

    Took a look at Sean Davis’s BWPY – WordPress Theme Building Course – very nice.

    A great place to starting learning about how themes work and to try your hand at rolling your own theme.

    Thanks Jeff and Sean

  3. You asked whether use of Underscores would facilitate Theme approval for, but I can tell you from experience reviewing/approving Themes for the official Theme Directory: when I come across an Underscores-derived Theme, I am able to perform a much less-rigorous final approval audit. I don’t have to worry about pretty much any of the template and template-part files, because I know the markup started from a compliant state. So, yes: I would say that use of an inherently standards-compliant starter Theme such as Underscores as the foundation for a Theme does facilitate review/approval of that Theme in the official Theme Directory.

    Now, if we could get a single, consensus options framework, I would be a very happy camper.

  4. I love it, certainly gives you a great head start. It is great to know that themes are built on a solid and trustworthy foundation. I have used it on all of my sites for at least a year now and will definitely be sticking with it. Thank you …

  5. Uh-oh. I’m a long-term Toolbox-tinker.

    I’m here on this Post, because a while back I noticed Toolbox was no longer in the Repository. I knew that could spell ‘trouble’. Thanks for the ‘Retired’ link … but all that’s there is the link to its unpronounceable replacement-project on GitHub.

    WordPress Repositories are a Very Good Thing. Indeed; being listed on the repository is a good first approximation of “Compliance Check Number One”.

    The advice to WP-codes not listed on the Repo? “Get listed.”

    I recently started using “F2” … an ancient artifact itself, now – I discover after the fact – rewritten using Underscore. Had I noted this relationship on first seeing the author’s rewrite-description, I would have interpreted it as a Framework-like ‘dependency’, and thus passed on it. But I didn’t catch the bit about _s, until I just now returned for deep-homework prep, before making an F2 Child.

    Yet going full-circle, I find that the crypto-nomen Underscore(s?) was Toolbox-driven (‘cept, TB was pragmatic). Hmm! And in the “announcement post” link, I see that the specific rationale-context that disqualified Toolbox, was NOT that it “was” or “is” broken, itself, but that turning it into, or updating it to support what the authors wanted, would break … what was up until then, not broke? And still isn’t … yet it was dropped?

    I would probably be all for promoting Son-of-Toolbox … if it had a proper WordPress address. I will probably not be able to resist looking at it … but it would have been a lot nicer, to see a blurb on the Toolbox page, promoting a new-and-improved version/project.


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