Jason Schuller to Re-Enter WordPress Theme Market with Niche Admin Designs

pickle-preview

Jason Schuller, the original founder of the Press75 theme company, has been off the radar for a few years as he pursued experiments with alternative publishing platforms. He officially exited the commercial WordPress theme business earlier this year when Press75 was acquired by Westwerk, following a sharp decline in the shop’s monthly revenue.

Prior to selling his company, Schuller had begun to focus more on his experimental projects, Dropplets, Leeflets, and Cinematico. Over the years, he had become disillusioned with the software, as he watched WordPress become increasingly more complex. This frustration, coupled with the weight of complex frameworks that started devouring the WordPress theme market, essentially vaporized his passion for the software and pushed him out to make something new.

Earlier this year, in an interview with Jeff Chandler, Schuller expressed his dissatisfaction with trying to make WordPress do what he wanted and said that he wouldn’t be concentrating his efforts on WordPress in the immediate future.

Video Preview of Custom WordPress Admin for the “Pickle” Project

In his never-ending quest to simplify publishing online, Schuller has once again picked up WordPress to experiment with creating a radically simplified admin design for Pickle, his restaurant-themed HTML template.

Traditionally, making a template like that editable in WordPress ends up being a complex thing for your average user to navigate in the admin. The preview video shows how Schuller has re-imagined the admin for his niche one page template.

pickle-admin

He has essentially removed the admin, de-registered all the styles and many of the components, in an effort to create a custom CMS for this particular template. The result is a better correlation between the content editing experience and the actual website, with simplified action buttons.

If you watch the preview, you’ll hear Schuller summarize why he created the simplified admin:

This is my biggest issue with WordPress right now. It doesn’t scale backward for minimalist websites like this. The CMS should reflect, in my opinion, what you’re trying to accomplish with your website, and all of these unnecessary components of WordPress just really don’t need to be here unless you need them for what you’re trying to accomplish.

Schuller said that it took him approximately two days to customize the WordPress admin to suit his template. “I’m nearly finished with it. It’s going to launch as a downloadable theme first and then I’ll be launching a hosted version as well,” he said.

The theme will not be launching on Leeflets but rather on a new domain, yet to be determined, bringing Schuller back into the WordPress theme market. Why is he returning?

“With this particular project, I really just wanted to get my vision out of my head as quick as possible,” he said. “With that in mind, I couldn’t see creating a custom CMS just for Pickle, so I figured WordPress would be the best way to do that quickly. Plus, you still can’t ignore WordPress’s reach.”

I asked Schuller if the Pickle admin theme is a one time project or if he plans to create more niche admin themes to accompany his designs. “If Pickle goes well, I have a few other niche admins in mind for specific templates,” he replied.

“My goal is really simple – to help my customers/users create and manage websites. If WordPress helps me do that in an efficient way, I’m all for it. But I’ll be doing it my way this time around,” he emphasized.

Schuller’s minimalist approach to the WordPress admin is something that he hopes will be easier for his target market to wrap their brains around. The popularity of the Pickle template is what spurred him on to create an editable version using WordPress. “I wasn’t expecting much when I released the Pickle HTML template,” he said. “But it was an instant hit. There are quite a few people helping restaurants create websites with it. That’s what triggered the idea to make a WordPress version.”

At the moment Schuller is in touch with his market on a very small scale, but he hopes that it will expand with a successful launch of the Pickle theme. “My hope is that the WordPress version makes it even more enticing for businesses looking for a minimalist website/solution.”

Schuller has identified a problem that many developers are hoping to solve. WordPress core is moving towards bridging the separation between the editing experience and the display of the content, with improvements to the customizer and experimental projects like the frontend editor. Others hope that the new JSON REST API will make it easier for developers to create custom admins.

These changes cannot come soon enough, but will they be fully able to provide a more natural editing experience for users? Those, like Schuller, who have wrestled with dissatisfaction, have a decent shot at creating a revolutionary editing experience for the 10 year old platform. His inspiring work on the Pickle admin breaks WordPress out of the box and forces developers to look at the content editing experience in a new way.

A more modular admin that can easily be scaled back for minimalist websites is something that would allow developers to truly customize the CMS for any niche template or project. The WordPress admin then becomes a chameleon of sorts, able to disappear into its surroundings with the content in focus. Schuller’s Pickle experiment is a good example of this, and likely part of a trend that we’ll see more in the future.

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45 Comments


  1. As a content creator, rather than a coder, THIS is precisely how I’ve thought WordPress should work. And I don’t just mean for minimalist sites either. As Jason himself says, the back-end should correlate with what is being done on the front-end.

    If WordPress doesn’t take the hint, some other platform will.

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    1. With the REST API being included in the core of WordPress at some point in the future, WordPress itself won’t need to take a hint. The developers will bypass core development and do it themselves. They just need the API in place.

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      1. How does moving the editor from the back-end to the front make any difference to this particular issue?

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      2. I’m not Schuller so I’m not entirely sure what his gripes are with the WordPress back-end but it seems like a Front-end Editor would ease some of the pain he was describing in his video.

        Having the ability to edit the content on your site without having to head into the WordPress back-end certainly seems valuable for some people. It also has a rating of 4.9/5 stars on .org so it’s definitely solving problems for some users.

        This doesn’t take away from Schuller’s experiment though, I’m all for custom WordPress dashboards and would love to see more in the future.

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      3. @Chris Aprea. OK, so you aren’t actually talking about the same thing at all.

        Front-end editing might be useful, but it doesn’t change the structure of the back-end, which is what this is about.

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      4. Oh of course it doesn’t change the structure of the back-end.

        I was only trying to suggest that the introduction of a front-end editor may ease the pain of some users by completely circumventing the need of the WordPress back-end for tasks like adding / editing content.

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      5. I see. That’s certainly not what Jason Schuller was talking about, nor why I commented.

        I can see why a front-end editor might be helpful to some people in the way you suggest. But to someone like me, who writes a ton of content, it’s actually totally irrelevant. I’d never even consider writing direct into the WordPress back-end when there are far superior alternatives outside of WordPress in which to write.

        Whether the editor into which the content is subsequently pasted or injected then appears on the front- or back-end makes no difference to me. What does matter is how the back-end is structured, so that (a) I can find what I need immediately, and (b) anything I don’t need just isn’t there to get in the way.

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  2. am I missing something? this entire article was about modifying the WordPress admin with Pickle and I purchased Pickle and it appears to just be an html theme??

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    1. Yes, you’re missing something. Pickle is currently just an HTML template but Schuller is in the process of creating a WordPress theme for it to make it easy to edit.

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  3. I am missing a lot of things… but as a marketer you should probably know not to respond like that. I’m not missing that knowledge at least.

    I see the one sentence now saying that its just HTML.. but pretty easy to misinterpret with lines like

    “With this particular project, I really just wanted to get my vision out of my head as quick as possible,” he said. “With that in mind, I couldn’t see creating a custom CMS just for Pickle, so I figured WordPress would be the best way to do that quickly. Plus, you still can’t ignore WordPress’s reach.”

    “Schuller has once again picked up WordPress to experiment with creating a radically simplified admin design for Pickle, his restaurant-themed HTML template.”

    can you explain to me how you make an admin for an HTML template?

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    1. I’m not a marketer. ;) He’s making the admin for the HTML template using WordPress. It will be a new product, likely more expensive than the simple HTML template. I hope that clarifies the issue for you.

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  4. “I’m sorry about that, Pickle is only available as an HTML template currently”

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  5. Looks awesome! Wow. How can I get notified as SOON as it gets released???

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  6. I really like the notion of re-imagining the admin area of WordPress. Especially after seeing what the Copyblogger folks did with their Rainmaker platform. I think that there’s a lot of opportunity to design the admin area to make it user friendly for the uninitiated user and also for folks who may know what they’re doing. As it stands today, in my opinion, the admin area is just a difficult experience for folks who don’t know WP… I like where this guy is going with the admin… Gives me some ideas. =)

    Good stuff.

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    1. I too thought that the re-imagined Admin of Pickle was rather NewRainMaker-esqe :) I have spent enough time to bond with the current WP Admin, but I can see where it would be mighty intimidating for a regular user. For sure. And that said, I am always expecting to see menu choices in the current admin in certain places and they are not there. A re-imagining of that area, however slight, may also help. Or, just leave it as by now I am very familiar with it. :)

      But the Pickle theme would allow me to setup a client restaurant site in so little time and for small $$$ that I think I could create a market just with that theme. Or so I hope.

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  7. “WordPress doesn’t scale back” – dang, I’ve been saying this for years… I’m so so pleased this has got some attention! I also think this is one of the biggest issues with WordPress – everybody here will be pretty tech-savvy, but what about all those people who don’t want their dashboard showing up all those items they’re never gonna need? Sure, there are plugins to disable them but plugins are a pain and require an admin to manage and install them all! If only the Automattic team could also address this issue as well – all ‘official’ like! Really really good luck with this one Jason: blaze the way!!! ;)

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  8. Question (sorry to leave a question in the ‘comment’s section) – Say I want to use Pickle with Yoast’s SEO plugin? Is that possible? Or does activating the theme disable all installed plugins? Or would plugins just continue to do their thing quietly in the background?

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    1. If this is just a theme for the existing admin panel, then plugins like that should continue to work as normal. If it’s a complete rewrite of the admin panel, then those plugins would fail to work since they wouldn’t know where to hook in to add their input fields etc.

      Theme the existing admin panel is risky business. Many have tried doing this in the past, but failed to keep up with the development of WordPress core since their themes were regularly broken during upgrades. A total rewrite of the admin panel (which is much easier now via the new JSON API) allows for a total rewrite, which is less fragile, but will not work with many existing plugins.

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  9. “so… what else would you need…..”
    Ok, well how about ability to add colours, custom styles, fonts, images, other structural changes??
    Or is this aimed at forcing the user to only edit the text and keep the template exactly as it is, because i think that might limit the target (buying) audience (again, unless you’re talking about selling this theme once?).
    I personally hope wordpress/developers do NOT go down this route!

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    1. “Ok, well how about ability to add colours, custom styles, fonts, images, other structural changes??”
      – I’m no expert, but that all sounds do-able with the addition of a front-end editor such as that used in Designmodo’s new ‘framework for WordPress’…

      I would also hope that not all WordPress developers go down this route, but some perhaps should; I definitely think this is an area that’s as-yet untapped and full of potential anyhow.

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  10. 2 things.

    1. If “Scaling back WP for small sites” is an issue (I would agree that it is) then it should be solved more universally via a plugin that can be used with any theme. Essentially, admin skins are a nice idea but should not be tied to a theme, it should be a plugin.

    2. Most of the settings in the video could/should imo be controlled via the Customizer. Most of that simple setup stuff can be managed this way removing the need to site owners to actually navigate the dashboard unless they’re adding content. Plus they get all the good stuff like live previews.

    I can see people buying in to this but to me it feels a bit like a reinvention of the wheel.

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    1. I agree with both points.

      Additionally, having a completely custom admin interface for this theme might make it even harder for beginners to use WordPress. Let’s say this is the first theme a user picks up and the first time they use WordPress. Then, decide to start a new site or change themes on this site, then they have a whole new learning curve to learn the actual WordPress interface rather than this customized interface.

      If every theme came with it’s own customized WordPress dashboard, no matter how “simple” the developer thinks it might be, it will add heaps of unintended complexity in the long run.

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      1. Unfortunately, after the dust settles, these ideas are correct. Because one HUGE problem with current WP and it is not WP’s fault per se, but that each theme has its own “admin” panel and these vary WIDELY. SO each theme has different settings in different places. I speak of what is commonly referred to as the “options panel” in many themes these days. WP tried to help and start using the CUSTOMIZER more often. But this is still a bit uneven.

        Time will tell, as the siren song of extreme thoughtfulness and ease of use provided by rainmaker and Pickle (the only ones I know of, there may be more) will certainly be a factor in the future of WP.

        Pickle makes me think I could do ten restaurant sites in the time it would previously taken for ONE site :) I like that for sure.

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    2. Ugh! Someone had to come along and tell us that the Customizer is the way to go. I’m sorry, but I don’t think it is at all. Horribly clunky, with a ton (and ever increasing number) of options that a new user is apparently supposed to negotiate. The only reason some see it as an improvement over Theme Options is that it’s the same mess for everyone to negotiate. But it’s still a mess.

      There is no reason why the sort of thing Jason Schuller is proposing should lead to a different (and therefore confusing) default admin for each site. In fact, Iorangeo’s comment here provides an idea of how this approach could look.

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      1. I hope you did not think it was me that said Customizer is definitely the way to go :) I was really only trying to say what you said much better. The same mess for everyone, but still a mess :) When one puts customizer next to Rainmaker or Pickle, one sees right away which is easier for the novice. And yet is was/is an attempt to have a central spot for changes.

        In Pickle, dealing with CONTENT is Facebook easy. That will resonate very well with new users.

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      2. @Dave Bell. No, Dave, I absolutely did not think it was you who said that. It’s just the way that comments on comments get nested here! I must remember to put @ at the beginning of such comments in future!

        You and I seem to be absolutely on the same page!

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      3. CVool. Got it. Yeah it is confusing the way things are threaded. Hey, things are changing so rapidly that I certainly do not have all the answers. But I do recognize game changers when I see them. Like Rainmaker and Pickle.

        It almost seems like WP needs three tiers. small med and large :) Pickle for a basic site, Rainmaker for more advanced, and third I have no idea what.

        But for now, NOTHING is so frustrating to me as going to Customizer and not finding the precise menu option I need, which was in the previous theme I used. This is what I call a disconnect. And when you get enough of those, like not finding a menu choice where one would naturally expect it, and one ends up with almost unusable software. When I first looked at WP back around 2.6 ish, this is precisely what turned me way off. It was a year or two until I circled back around 2.9 ish and said, hmmm, this is STARTING to look like something I could possible deal with.

        I have a friend who over promised a site for his client. All she needs is a “pickle” like site at this point. Warning: X theme is not for the novice for a site like this :)

        But my buddy would not be in a jam if there was a “pickle easy” theme he could use. I think Jason is going to have a HUGE hit on his hands. Like mega huge.

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  11. To make the admin menu less intimidating and make WordPress look more like a mainstream CMS, there is something very easy that could (should?) be done –> moving the whole blog feature (i.e. posts by default) into an extension that would be installed on WP but not activated by default. We would then have a very clean menu with: “Pages”, “Medias” (“Comments” <– could be made optional too). This would also solve a big problem, which is understating the difference between pages and posts for many users who will NEVER need and use the "Posts" feature. A “Blog” (or "Posts") menu would be added only for THOSE who need a blog/dynamic posts section on their site (by activating the plugin, like they actually have to activate a “forum” plugin if they want a forum, a “wiki” plugin if they want a wiki, or anything else that they want to be included within their pages (which are esentially the base of any kind of website – a site is made of (web) pages). Sorry for my limited English.

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  12. I’ve been following Jason’s work very closely with Leeflets and Dropplets. The simplicity of the system can be far superior to WordPress when doing small-scale sites. I love that he’s taking this approach into WordPress.

    The area where WP fails to excel is allowing easy customization of the admin. No one wants to keep up with the constant change. You can almost guarantee that any plugin you write that does things in the admin will break with the next update of WP. Maybe it’s possible to get around this by simply removing everything possible and adding just the things you want.

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    1. it’s still not future proof. why would he create it that way is still big question to me.

      we can create secondary setting on the front end without changing anything in wp-admin.

      think of profile edit page in bbpress or buddypress.

      it’s simple to build and dar more future proof. (imo)

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  13. At the end of the day there’s just so many people out there that want a website BUT don’t want all of the hassle of learning WordPress – and let’s face it: that huge admin area, all of those different settings, learning which plugins to use, updating and maintaining things etc etc is all an absolute pain for anyone who ‘just wants a simple website’. Surely what Jason’s attempting to do here is hugely important for such people! And anything that brings more people into the world of WordPress (or even online) is A-OK with me! ;)

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    1. – although granted it would still have to be updated, so scratch that from the above. Oops.

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  14. I never realized something like this would be considered new, since we’ve been doing it for almost 10 years.. There are a lot of custom wordpress versions now that re-worked the admin, most of them are now re-branded solutions custom configured for various niche topics.

    11 Years ago, when I switched from b2 cafelog, I have always thought wordpress was the easiest admin to use.. Joomla, Drupal, and others I thought were confusing.. But as far as the admin, there have been and still are options to change whatever you want to make it however you want. It’s really not hard or anything special anymore.

    I have about 1000 more links, but here is one, http://premium.wpmudev.org/blog/10-impressive-wordpress-admin-themes-for-2014/

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  15. Interesting solution but it should be a plugin. Simplifying the admin area is a good lead but as referred by expert-a risky ordeal. Because if I want to setup a church or a school site, I should just have church or school features in place rather than the whole options. But since WP devs are not particular to making plugins for mainstream/niche sites/business without activating a whole lot of plugins which bring about several training before the site is given to the owners, then this should be a good lead. But can work to deactivate the admin with an option to activate it anytime and allow the plugin to take control the admin features management.

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    1. No, not necessarily.

      If you want to continue to think and operate within the current WordPress paradigm, then you’d be correct. But the point of this is to break out of the restrictions of that paradigm.

      So someone like Dave Bell, for example, who wants to build a lot of restaurant sites, doesn’t have to load the original WP crud only to have to then also load a plugin to turn it all off. (And then he’d have to spend time configuring the plugin to get the type of back-end he really wanted to start with in the first place.)

      What Schuller’s approach could lead to, in another words, is a variety of alternative back-end solutions (not just themes that claim to prettify the admin but actually just add to the clutter). In fact, this would make WordPress even more modular than it currently is. So far as I am concerned, the more modular, the better.

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      1. I’d actually argue that this still belongs within a plugin because we’re talking about a publicly-released product. Users should only expect the front end of their site to be changed when installing a theme. When installing a plugin, anything goes.

        When I say this should be a plugin, what I really mean is that this should be a plugin + theme combo. One doesn’t make sense without the other, so you definitely shouldn’t be installing a theme plus a separate plugin. The theme should be packaged within the plugin. WP allows plugins to register their own theme directories. It’s easy to do this from a plugin perspective because these things were built into WP when BuddyPress first came on the scene. The plugin could easily auto-activate its own theme.

        This approach allows us to still follow some of the standards laid out by WordPress years ago while catering to such things as child themes for overwriting the main design. Plus, users are more apt to edit themes than plugins. That way lies danger.

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  16. I can’t wait to see what else Jason comes up with, because he’s doing exactly the opposite to WordPress, and going for clean, simple, elegant, and useable! I love that someone is doing this and hope to be the beneficiary of his designs and approach.

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  17. It doesn’t seem like he’s advocating the dumbing down of the platform, but I agree that simplifying the UI would enhance the user experience for the bulk of users. It would be something for WP to consider. Perhaps next he can set his sights on Microsoft Word – it’s a beast :).

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  18. Schuller has disappointed me time and time again with discontinuing a lot of his themes, false promises on how many themes are to be released on Press75 (I am a long time customer), updates, his SimpleTheme idea/theme/framework/whatever, his ThemeGarden project and while I can see that his “simple admin” has its advantages you can’t do a lot of things. Like in my country you need to anonymize the IP in Google Analytics and here I can only input my GA-ID. Will the admin interface somehow account for that? I don’t think so. While the concept looks good I’m pretty sure it will get dropped again as so many of the things Jason Schuller promised or wanted to do.

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    1. I haven’t followed Jason’s progress closely enough to comment, but I have seen this in other WordPress projects. It’s great that people want to build stuff, but if they’re going to drop them soon rather than later, then they’re not work using IMO.

      I appreciate people like Justin Tadlock for this reason. He deprecates things occasionally, but it’s not without good reason.

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