Jason Schuller’s Pickle Theme Re-Imagines WordPress as an Invisible CMS


Last week Jason Schuller launched his Pickle WordPress theme on Pickle.pub and the product is now available on Creative Market. Pickle is a restaurant theme that is packaged with a custom admin design to provide a seamless content-editing experience.

Schuller’s decision to re-enter the WordPress theme market following the sale of Press75 came after several years of experimenting with alternative publishing platforms. In an interview with the Tavern last year, he expressed dissatisfaction with trying to make WordPress do what he wanted, which caused him to consider abandoning the platform entirely.

Schuller found himself chronically at odds with WordPress’ limitations for scaling its complexity backwards to provide a more simplified publishing experience. Pickle was born out of this frustration. The theme reimagines the WordPress admin as an extension of the front-end design, with no abrupt transitions for editing content.


Targeting a Wider Market Beyond WordPress

At first glance, it might appear that the restaurant niche is a relatively small and limited market for a WordPress theme developer. However, if you check out Pickle.pub, you’ll find no mention of WordPress among Pickle’s features. Schuller is intentionally marketing it to a larger potential customer base that includes anyone looking to build a simple restaurant website.

“I’m not really advertising Pickle as a WordPress theme,” Schuller told the Tavern. “Essentially, my approach was to use WordPress to create my own custom CMS for minimalist restaurant websites.”

In the future he plans to release more options, styles and add-ons for the product. Currently, all of Pickle’s functionality is packed into the theme, but Schuller is not overly concerned about data portability in this instance.

“That data (in my opinion) is exclusive to what I’m doing with Pickle,” he said. “In other words, [pullquote]I’m not concerned with my users even knowing that it’s powered by WordPress.[/pullquote]”

Schuller is hoping to attract two different markets: customers who know they want WordPress and those who just know they want a business website and don’t care what software it uses.

“It shouldn’t matter to new users if it’s a WordPress solution,” he said. “But at the same time, freelancers who work with WordPress and have clients in the restaurant industry might be attracted by Pickle because it is a WordPress solution. I’m hoping to target both ends of the spectrum.”

This time around in the WordPress theme business, Schuller is venturing into the frontier where customers aren’t already convinced of a favorite CMS. Pickle was intentionally designed to make WordPress, and all its complexity, effectively invisible. This is one of the reasons the theme does not currently support the use of 3rd-party plugins.

At Odds with WordPress Theme Development Best Practices

WordPress core doesn’t make it easy for developers to heavily customize the admin. This will soon change when the WP REST API lands in core; Schuller is open to updating Pickle to use the API once it’s no longer under heavy development.

“Once the REST API lands in core, there would be no reason for me not to change my approach,” he said. “But for today, a little custom CSS and PHP will do just fine.”

Pickle is Schuller’s attempt at testing the waters for the possibility of other niche admin designs in the future. A hosted version is also set to launch within the next month. “If all goes well, I’ll probably create more niche solutions from the simple HTML templates I’ve been releasing on Leeflets,” he said. These include other one-page designs for things like newsletters, biographies, galleries, and landing or product pages.

“If that’s something I do end up doing, I would probably create some sort of admin theming plugin in order to eliminate duplicating the work each time,” Schuller said. “I could see the result of that being its own product as well for WordPress.”

At the moment, he is not prioritizing putting the functionality into a plugin. However, the way Pickle is built is at odds with WordPress theme development best practices of separating plugin functionality from the theme’s design.

If a major release of WordPress causes a break in Pickle, it’s not in a plugin where one could easily disable the functionality. A breaking change could possibly effect the site’s frontend design, without an update to Pickle. If the product were packaged as a theme plus plugin combination, users would be in a better position for updates from both core and Pickle.

Schuller contends that WordPress theme developers should have the option to add features in a more modular fashion:

I realize that my approach for Pickle specifically probably isn’t the way most “WordPress” developers would have done it. The important thing is that I finished it, and the idea is out there regardless of how it was engineered.

I’ve always felt that a good CMS should reflect the functionality you need for any given project. For instance, we shouldn’t assume that all themes should support links, comments, widgets, etc., or even posts for that matter. Some themes/users might only need “pages” which means that most of the admin menus in WordPress could and maybe should be hidden in that case. We have to manually add “theme support” within theme functions for features like “post thumbnails”, so why isn’t that the case for everything else?

After years of frustration with “the WordPress way,” Schuller is going his own way this time around. He finds himself at friction with WordPress best practices and the ability to serve a larger market of people who don’t care if a site is built on WordPress.

“To be honest, I really wasn’t concerned about what the WordPress developer community would think about how I engineered Pickle,” he said. “I know there are probably so many ways I could have done it better, or hired someone else to do it better for me.”

In creating Pickle, Schuller consciously chose to ignore his fear of the doing_it_wrong() brigade in order to deliver a product that he believes will be simple for customers to use.

When I got started with WordPress back in 2007, I had no clue what I was doing, but I was creating things and putting them out there as I learned, which is how I grew Press75. Somewhere along the way, I became much too concerned with how the WordPress community might perceive what I was making and that’s when my business started to decline.

Instead of just being happy making things I was passionate about, I became obsessed with perfection and making sure everyone was going be happy with what I made. I’m not going to make that same mistake again. It’s so much more important to put your work out there (even if it’s not perfect) than to never put it out there at all in fear that someone might not agree with the way you did it.

Could business be as simple as building products that make both you and your customer happy? Do all WordPress sites need a long-term plan for data portability and separation of theme and plugin functionality?

Re-Imagining WordPress as an Invisible CMS

The invisibility of the traditional admin in the Pickle theme is a tribute to WordPress’ flexibility as a CMS. However, the lack of theme/plugin functionality separation is my primary objection to how it’s built, as it may make it difficult for the user to keep pace with core updates. This could potentially become a security issue.

Schuller’s approach for one-page designs may not conform to best practices but it once again begs the question: how can we erase the separation between editing experience and the display of content? Many users find the native customizer in its current state to be too clunky to adequately handle this in an elegant way.

While I don’t fully support the approach that Schuller took with building Pickle, I agree with the basic premise of pushing the boundaries to simplify WordPress for the user. Pickle is inspirational, despite its technical drawbacks. It is a groundbreaking example of a WordPress-powered content editing experience that is perfectly tailored to the frontend design. It’s a design-specific theme that doesn’t require a heavy page builder or multiple sub-panels of customizer options.

Not everyone agrees on the best way to make the WordPress editing experience better while moving theme development forward. The platform needs people who are dissatisfied with the status quo to spearhead new, unorthodox ways of solving problems. However, it also needs the folks who have managed to keep inspiration alive for years, while working on the less glamorous tasks of contributing to core and establishing standards to make it better for everyone.

As niche admin designs become common, the answer to the question of “What does WordPress look like?” will get fuzzy and difficult to define. A more modular approach to theming WordPress as a whole will make it easier for developers to sift out the functionality that users don’t need on basic websites. Finding a happy balance here will be critical for the platform to continue its reputation as a user-friendly CMS.


32 responses to “Jason Schuller’s Pickle Theme Re-Imagines WordPress as an Invisible CMS”

  1. While I don’t fully support the approach that Schuller took with building Pickle, I agree with the basic premise of pushing the boundaries to simplify WordPress for the user. Pickle is inspirational, despite its technical drawbacks. It is a groundbreaking example of a WordPress-powered content editing experience that is perfectly tailored to the frontend design.

    What if there were different modes for using WordPress?

    Meaning, as an author, you’d be limited to a front end writing experience similar to that of Pickle but if you were an admin, you might see the default WordPress admin experience (which you could switch back and forth from)?

    Does anyone see any value in that? Obviously, themes would need further standardization, but that’s not a road we haven’t been down before. I think it could be done and I think it would be awesome for writers to be able to have a more streamlined and pleasurable writing experience, a la Medium.

    • I quite like the idea of keeping writers and editors out of most of the admin pages. There are some options that they should be able to control themselves, but some of the admin stuff isn’t that far removed from rocket science as far as the general public is concerned. Having control over who gets to see/do what would be useful for sites that have multiple administrative responsibilities as well.

  2. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with making a specialized system for a specific case, and doing things that would be outside the scope of a more general theme.

    Instead of thinking of it as a “theme”, think of it more along the lines of using WordPress as a sort of platform upon which to build something else. How it’s implemented internally isn’t really the point. It’s all just code, after all. WP as a platform offers several advantages over a more do-it-yourself approach.

    Heck, even I’ve done crazy things with WordPress outside the more traditional scope. If I need to write some quick code to automate some one-time task, and I want to do it in PHP, then I’ll frequently just include wp-load.php so that I can get all the little handy time-saving WP functions I already know how to use… even if what I’m doing is more of a command-line oriented thing. Saves me a bunch of time. It’s obviously not suitable for general use, but for a one-time need, sure, why not? The platform I know lets me develop quickly and easily.

    If you’re building a custom-website-creating-engine, then building it on top of WordPress makes good sense. You get a fully functional post and page system, taxonomies for various forms of categorization, arbitrary key/value data storage mechanisms, a complete user management system, an extension loading mechanism, and loads of helper functions. The fact that he’s implemented this “as-a-theme” is rather secondary. He could have written the same thing entirely from scratch and nobody would bat an eye.

    So, yeah. Looks pretty neat to me.

  3. It’s wrong to think of Pickle as a theme. As was mentioned, it’s a SAAS solution but because it’s also available as a self-hosted platform, it’s going to be labeled as either a theme or a plugin. Jason isn’t the first to do this; Studiopress offers New Rainmaker as a SAAS platform. The admin is simplified and very customized, the feature choices are limited and there’s no provision for adding additional plugins. Both are solutions for a specific audience. Splitting Pickle into a theme and a plugin would add additional complexity that goes against the goal he’s after – simplifying the admin UI and setup UX for the average Joe Restauranteur.

    Frankly, I also see a need for these niche-specific solutions. I’ve been working on one myself, and I’ll be buying Pickle to take it apart so I can learn how Jason approached solving the common setup/data entry challenges new users always have questions about.

  4. I like the idea. I actually like it a lot. This notion of being unconcerned with whether or not people know it’s WordPress has been something I felt useful all along. My first WordPress sites eliminated all traces of “wordpress” verbiage too. I feel it’s a bit tacky sometimes. It says “I didn’t build this site from scratch, or from the ground up….I installed something and customized it.”

    I hope modularizing things will come soon. I have wanted to tinker with some public plugins that I’d build, but felt I don’t know enough about the right ways. This inspires me to go about it differently, so maybe I’ll build them anyway.

    As for the inherent problems with the theme security, There’s another reason why this may be less of an issue, which was always another reason I’d remove all WordPress branding from early sites. It’s security through obscurity. If hackers don’t KNOW it’s WordPress, then they aren’t likely to even try. I’ve always tried to obscure things like the wordpress admin login for this very reason. This sounds like it accomplishes much of the same thing. So WordPress updates aren’t needed so much in that case. Granted, they should keep improving the theme so that WP Core updates do get that opportunity to show up and be done… just that it’s not nearly such a pressing issue.

    I feel the pain that the author of this theme feels. The admin side of WP is definitely too cluttered and makes way too many assumptions. It needs the ability to be modularized in order to disable what a site really doesn’t need. Maybe somebody should make an admin plugin that does this, and then try contributing it to core? It would be best to be able to pair down the entire site so that I can show a client that there’s just the main features they need and nothing to distract them or get in the way of just getting right to it….make it easy for them to update their own site so they don’t feel intimidated by the massive plethora of features that they don’t understand.

  5. Pickle isn’t really a WordPress theme. It’s a full-on solution for running a restaurant. It’s a platform. I don’t see any conflict between it and the “standards” that we normally preach. Users of Pickle wouldn’t be switching themes in the traditional sense. Doing so would be like switching from Magento to WP + WooCommerce for your online shop.

    Jason also isn’t promoting it as a theme. I think it’d be wrong to call it such.

    If I had coded it, I probably would’ve started from the plugins folder in my dev install rather than the themes folder. I think there are a few advantages of doing this, but they probably don’t matter since I didn’t build it.

  6. If we were selling hardware, we’d call this an “embedded system.” It’s where we take a computer and use it as part of an instrument’s core. The outer case may only have a few buttons to press. The complexity is hidden from the end user. Functions are relabeled to match their specific niche jargon to reduce the learning curve. WordPress is becoming an embedded system for several reasons.

    1. It allows niche marketing which always is more profitable.

    2. WordPress has come to be synonomous with cheap or free. It’s hard to maintain a living when clients know you have little or no parts cost. Not knowing WordPress is involved allows for higher fees. Admittedly, WordPress has insistence value for some clientel. But they are not willing to pay extra for that. They expect a price reduction.

    3. It allows simplification of the user interface (UI).

    4. The UX can be customized for the expectations and “pain” of the niche market.

  7. I’m very glad to see unusual WP configurations – it gives you an idea of what is possible. There are quite enough clone themes out there, thank you very much. :)

    If someone doesn’t follow “the WordPress way”, it doesn’t hurt my feelings any (unless someone’s doing actual harm) – to me, the only downside is for the author, who might take flack for doing things in unusual ways, as well as maybe not being able to upgrade something that doesn’t work with his/her unique scenario.

    I’m a huge WP fan, but I used loads of systems before arriving there – there’s a lot of great stuff out there. And I have my own private collection of WP annoyances, but none have led me completely astray. That Jason went on walkabout and still came back is a big compliment to WP. I might have guessed that he’d have grabbed one of those PHP frameworks.



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