Ona by DeoThemes Just Raised the Bar for WordPress Block Theme Design

Homepage design of the Ona WordPress theme, featuring a large hero area that stretches across the top of the page, followed by four columns of boxes with background images.

No sooner than I said the floodgates of block theme development would be open, a couple of more FSE-capable themes landed in the WordPress.org directory. I checked the review system, and three more were queued up.

It took mere days for me to find another favorite: Ona by DeoThemes. When the author mentioned it, I checked the source code to ensure it was a 100% block theme. It was hard to believe at first glance.

The theme has been approved for the directory, but it has not yet been set live. It should be available soon, but anyone can grab the ZIP file from its ticket if they want to give it a spin.

We are now at a point where the block system can nearly match traditional theming in features. There are still some kinks to work out and a few missing pieces, but Ona embraces block templating and global styles like few have before. It is modern, almost minimalist, yet packed with potential for a site owner who wants to share their content in style.

Of the free block themes available, less than a handful could be named its equal. But let’s give it a few weeks and see what else lands. I could be eating my own words shortly.

Ona’s design leans heavily toward modern-day fashion, lifestyle, and travel blogs. However, that is not a hard requirement. It is balanced enough for use on a range of sites. It works well as a blog, but small businesses could get a lot out of it with block-built landing pages. It does lend itself well to storytelling with a mix of large, in-content images.

Single blog post view of a WordPress theme.  The content has a centered titled, followed by a wide-width image, and textual content.
Single post view.

The change that users will need to make out of the gates is with the site branding. The default 18px of letter-spacing for the site title does not work well for more than a few characters. This is easy to adjust in the site editor.

Ona does not have a lot of patterns, but it makes up for it with a well-rounded set. It ships with two headers, one footer, and five for general usage. Most of them are in use on the demo’s homepage.

WordPress editor with the Patterns inserter open.  The content canvas has a four-column design with each column having a background image an a text box within.
Inserting Ona’s “Promo Boxes” pattern.

Looking through the theme’s source code, I noticed a couple of additional registered pattern categories titled “Ona Pages” and “Ona Posts.” There are no block patterns defined for them, so they do not appear in the inserter. The author may have forgotten to remove them or has plans for a more extensive set in the future.

Instead of putting everything into patterns, the theme also offers extra About and Contact page templates. Such custom templates were commonplace in traditional theming, but their usefulness was impeded by the lack of a standard editing interface. That is a non-issue with block themes.

Contact page template from the Ona WordPress theme that features an address, phone number, and email.
Contact page template.

With the template and site editors, Ona showcases how custom page templates could see a resurgence. I still lean toward block patterns as the primary way to offer custom layouts, but having full-page designs ready to go through the templating system is much nicer than in the classic era.

The problem with templates is that it can be hard to judge where structure and layout end and the content begins. For an About or Contact template, this is usually not a problem. Those two are likely to only be used once on a site. However, when you get into templates meant for use with multiple pages, there should be a clear separation of the two. Patterns are going to make a lot more sense for the content.

I rarely judge a theme entirely by its fancier features. What I truly want to know is whether its typography makes for comfortable long-form reading, and Ona does well in that department. I am not a fan of the oversized default blockquote design, but that can be easily adjusted.

The biggest issues I had with the theme were the font and color slugs. However, this is more of a personal grievance about nonexistent standards. Right now, slug naming is a free-for-all affair for block themes, and I do not see that changing any time soon.

Users will also encounter 404 errors from the theme’s default images. Again, this is not specific to Ona; it is a WordPress/Gutenberg issue. A fix only landed in the development version of the Gutenberg plugin five days ago. Maybe when the theme’s next update rolls around, it will be able to make use of it.

If this is the quality we are seeing at this stage, I cannot wait to see what the rest of the theme design community has in store. DeoThemes just raised the bar.

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11 responses to “Ona by DeoThemes Just Raised the Bar for WordPress Block Theme Design”

  1. Thanks for featuring Ona and for all the feedback. This is our first full-site-editing theme, so we’re still learning. Ona is now live and in the new version 1.0.1 we added page patterns and more block templates, also broken URLs has been fixed :)

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  2. It’s a little bit disappointing that WP tavern always ignores mobile view while reviewing a theme.

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    • The theme looked pretty good on mobile to me as I was testing it. If you see anything out of place, please mention it specifically. I’m sure it would be helpful for the theme author to know so that it can be fixed.

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  3. Chad says:

    It’s cool that themes like this are being developed. At the same, I think the approach of trying to shoehorn Gutenberg into the mainstream is a mistake, at least in its current iteration.

    As a long-time WP user, the block editor is complicated and difficult for me to use. Admittedly, I haven’t messed with it much, probably because every time I have it seems to lack intuitive function and I just feel lost.

    As a digital native, long-time WP user, and a user of many blogging platforms….this seems like really really bad UX to me that is going to push people away from WP. It’s like Gutenberg was pushed live as the default editor years ahead of when it was ready. From my perspective, it’s STILL not ready. If I can’t use it….I don’t know how your average WP user is expected to use it.

    The fact that themes like Ona have to exist on top of the block editor seems to defeat the whole point of the block editor in my opinion. Like….if we still have to use themes, then why even have a block editor? WP seems to be trying to re-create Elementor, or Divi, or WP Bakery, and they are doing such a terrible job that the existence of themes like Ona are still required.

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    • Block themes are not being pushed as the primary experience with WP 5.9. This will be more transitional than the introduction of the block editor in 5.0. It’s a far better approach that allows users to decide if they want to make the jump to such a theme.

      Themes like Ona do not need to exist to use the block editor. Block themes are a separate way of building themes with the block system under the hood. By creating a standard, it allows users to customize templates via the upcoming site editor. And, the global styles system lets them modify the design. A standard also makes it easier for plugins and themes to work together without creating specialized integrations.

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      • Chad says:

        Hey! Appreciate the reply :-)

        The block editor may very well be a brilliant system of the future. But as it stands, WordPress is already convoluted for a novice and the block editor only makes matters worse.

        My issue is not with theme’s like Ona but with the Block Editor itself. It seems more like an arcane side project among WP enthusiasts than a system that should be rolled out to all WP users by default.

        My company just took on a new customer, a recently retired school system administrator with a Doctorate in Education who decided to get into blogging as a retirement project.

        Unfortunately, this person, with a Doctorate in Education, found WordPress too complicated to figure out, so he hired my company to help him get up and running. I appreciate the business, I’m not complaining, but it concerns me that, with the block editor, WordPress seems to be moving in a direction that makes things more complex rather than more simple.

        Perhaps the end goal with the block editor is to create a better overall experience, but that goes back to my point of it having been rolled out long before it was ready for the general public.

        In terms of user experience, the block editor is a far cry from the editing experience one finds on Medium for blogging, or the page editing experience one finds on Wix.

        I understand that WordPress is a vastly more versatile system than Medium or Wix, and versatility inherently results in complexity. WordPress also has more users than Medium and Wix combined, and so trying to please everyone using WordPress is going to be much more difficult.

        I don’t mean to attack you, or your post, Justin :-) I’m just venting my frustration about the block editor and questioning the general direction WP is going in. Again, it may be a bright and brilliant tool of the future, but as of today, for my customer base, the block editor is an obstacle to avoid, as opposed to a feature that makes WP more pleasant to use.

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        • Oh, yeah, I definitely understand. I disagree on it being not ready for novices (at least as a general statement) simply based on my experience with such people on the block editor. But, everyone is different, and different things click for them. I’ve had people who could not figure out how to do even the most basic tasks in the classic editor who picked up the block editor without a hitch. And, I’ve seen the opposite. I’m not hands on with clients these days though. I just help manage some friend/family sites, but I’ve had to “fix” far fewer things that they’ve broken in the last couple of years.

          Negative feedback/criticism is good too as long as it’s constructive, so it’s definitely welcome here in the comments.

          I do like how block themes are being rolled out though. By making the feature opt-in (you have to explicitly activate a block theme to enable site editing and global styles) and giving it time to mature more naturally, it should make for a far better transition than when everyone was just suddenly introduced to the block-based content editor after updating.

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  4. Andrew Starr says:

    … and then a few days later swiftly lowered the bar in version 1.1

    I suspect they knew full well that all the newly added crap would not have passed the theme review had it been bundled in the initial release.

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    • Carlos says:

      The with 1.1 newly added “fremius” and “merlin” frameworks are not even mentioned with a single word in changelog in readme.txt

      These frameworks are totally unrelated to WordPress blocks and more than double the theme size from 2.7 MB to now 5.7 MB

      Has the theme been hacked? What is going on in theme directory?

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      • Just to clarify, we included Freemius SDK as a licensing system to offer users premium features and support. It is fully compliant with wordpress.org and does not violate any rules, it passes the theme check as well. Users must give their consent to allow data collection and it’s within wordpress.org guidelines.

        You can read it on their FAQ: Our WordPress SDK is compliant with the WordPress.org guidelines and has been reviewed and approved, by the plugins and themes review teams. In fact, there are currently hundreds of products that are hosted on WordPress.org and are using Freemius.

        As for Merlin, we removed it from the free version (1.1.1). It’s a setup wizard that helps with importing demo content, it uses native WordPress importer and plugin installer code. Both Merlin and Freemius packages are GPL licensed and fully compliant with wordpress.org guidelines.

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      • Andrew Starr says:

        The theme hasn’t been hacked. It is a deliberate cynical attempt at grabbing cash, and exerting control over the user’s site admin.

        From the initial data grab upon activating the theme, to the bait-and-switch banner and button in the admin which promises help with configuring and setup of the theme, but only serves to try and sell premium upgrades (there are no setup instructions whatsoever), and the external embedded content and payment forms directly in the user’s site without any prior notification, this has the stink of being grubby, desperate and insecure. I say insecure as in both from a security standpoint and from the insecurity of the theme’s authors.

        The theme also contains functionality that fetches content from an external .xml file. This is explicitly not allowed in the .org theme requirements, and the theme authors would know this all too well.

        What really made me concerned was when I went to activate another theme, only to be presented with a popup asking for information about why I was activating another theme. It is not immediately clear what data is being sent and where, and my main concern is that a new WordPress user may think this is normal behaviour and not question it, possibly assuming it to be an official part of WordPress.

        To be clear, I have absolutely nothing against making money, but to attempt it using such dubious tactics is just not on. It is simply not needed. There are plenty of ways of making money that don’t leave such a sour taste as what is being attempted here.

        There is also an issue that was present in the initial version which I didn’t notice. The wording of the theme name in the footer makes it appear as though the theme and it’s creator has copyright of the user’s site. Yes this can edited with template editing in block themes, but it should not appear like this even in the initial state. It’s prefectly okay to mention the theme name in the footer but the theme should never give the impression that it is the copyright holder of the user’s site.

        Normally I would not have made any comment about this, and would have just made a mental note not to use this theme or recommend it to anyone, but I had previously publicly praised an earlier version of this theme in another comment here in the Tavern, so felt it only right to say something.

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