#57 – Damon Cook on the Future of Website Styling in WordPress

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Jukebox
#57 – Damon Cook on the Future of Website Styling in WordPress
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Transcript

[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern, and a Happy New Year to you as well. My name is Nathan Wrigley.

Jukebox is a podcast which is dedicated to all things WordPress. The people, the events, the plugins, the blocks, the themes, and in this case, the future of styling your WordPress website.

If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast, you can do that by searching for WP Tavern in your podcast player of choice, or by going to WPTavern.com forward slash feed forward slash podcast. And you can copy that URL into most podcast players.

If you have a topic that you’d like us to feature on the podcast, I’m very keen to hear from you, and hopefully get you or your idea featured on the show. Head to WPTavern.com forward slash contact forward slash jukebox, and use the form there.

So on the podcast today we have Damon Cook. He’s a long time user of WordPress, trying it first in around 2008. He’s worked for some of the largest WordPress agencies over the years, but his current role is that of Developer Advocate with WP Engine, where he engages with the WordPress community, trying to figure out where WordPress is headed.

Damon is on the podcast today to talk about styling WordPress, and how it’s changing.

Up until recently, if you wanted to modify your website’s appearance, you needed to work with the theme. Sometimes this could be done in the theme’s UI or in the WordPress customizer. But if you really needed fine control, then it’s likely you edited the themes files or created a theme of your own. It can be quite a complex process.

Block-based themes or revolutionizing websites styling. You’re going to be able to modify any aspect of your website from the UI that you’re familiar with. The hope is that it’ll make styling more accessible to a wider audience.

Damon talks about the fact that we’re in a period of flux right now. The documentation and tooling needed to work with website styles is maturing, but is by no means complete.

We talk through some of the new concepts which are underpinning all of this. Style variations, style engine, global styles, block themes, block patterns, theme.json. These are perhaps terms that you’ve heard being used, but might not be familiar with. Damon explains what they are and where they fit into the website styling jigsaw.

Towards the end, we briefly get into the work that Damon has been doing with ACF to make his own blocks, and how it provides a bridge for those people who are not yet familiar with React.

If you’re interested in finding out more, you can find all the links in the show notes by heading over to. WPTavern.com forward slash podcast. And you’ll find all of the other episodes there as well.

And so without further delay, I bring you Damon Cook.

I am joined on the podcast today by Damon Cook. Hello Damon.

[00:03:42] Damon Cook: Hi Nathan. How you doing?

[00:03:44] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. Very nice. Thank you for joining us on the podcast today. Damon is going to have a chat with us today all about, well, a whole myriad of things, to be honest. But largely it’s about the things which are either currently in WordPress, potentially recently put into WordPress, or maybe even some things which are coming down the path.

He works for WP Engine. His role there is a really interesting one actually. It’s called Developer Advocate. I’m going to dig into what that role entails in a minute, in more depth. But Damon, will you just give us a little bit of a background of your journey with WordPress Just to orientate the listeners, what have you been up to in the WordPress space? When did you come across WordPress? Go as far back as you like to make it work.

[00:04:26] Damon Cook: Sure. I was thinking about that this morning. I’m trying to remember what my origin date would be. If I had to guess, because I’m not clear on it, but I probably started working with WordPress back in around 2008. I remember multi-site was just getting an introduction. Well, it was MU, multi-user, at the time. So, that was where I was introduced. I actually created an internal blogging platform for a state university I was working at at the time.

So it was neat to start working with open source tools. And I left there and went into agency land for about a decade where I worked with solely WordPress focused agencies like TenUp, WebDevStudios, and a few others. And, that is where I really focused my work as a front end developer. That’s where I’ve come to WP Engine with, I’ve been here about four or five months and, I’ve always found it a passion of mine to give back in to the community and really advocate and try to raise awareness around some of the newer features coming out of WordPress, which is, these days seems to be going at a pretty breakneck speed with Gutenberg. So, there’s a lot going on.

[00:05:49] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, there really is a lot going on and we we’ll dig more into that and your interest in it in a moment. But I want to just dwell on your job title if you don’t mind, a developer advocate at WP Engine. I have heard this muttered a few times by various different people from WP Engine, amongst other companies, and never really that sure what that role entails. So would you mind just spelling it out? I know that you’re new to the role, so maybe still finding your feet, I don’t know, but just tell us what the purpose of that job title is.

[00:06:20] Damon Cook: Yeah, I am new to it and it is interesting and, I see it as trying to gauge and engage with the community around WordPress. And that is as broad as it can be as in community, because coming from a agency world I tend to definitely focus and have a bias towards developer solutions. But at the end of the day, I’ve always been passionate about creating experiences for the end user, for builders of any stages of learning whether it’s a marketer building a site, or you know, somebody who has a background as a developer or an enterprise developer, or a designer.

So trying to engage with that community and see where there are any gaps or barriers to onboarding them, really to any of the latest things coming out of the project, or elevate their experience in creating and building sites with WordPress, I guess. And with that also, giving back to WordPress core make teams. I’ve been trying to contribute a little bit to the Docs team and the Learn team. And that’s all sponsored by WP Engine too, as a developer advocate role. So that’s kind of the lay of the land as I see it.

[00:07:44] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, that’s absolutely fascinating. Can I ask, can I drill deeper into this, because find it really interesting. Where do you go looking for the WordPress community? Because it’s pretty clear that, well, it’s as broad as it is deep. You could find WordPress people in almost every walk of life. Every age group, every part of the world.

And also, you can’t spread yourself throughout the world, so you probably have to do a lot of this online. And, well, there’s Slack, there’s Make, there’s, well there’s podcasts like this, there’s news outlets, There’s all sorts of different places where these people find themselves. And I guess you’ve got to try and touch as many of those as possible to gauge all of the different opinions. Where do you find yourself, well spending most of your time? Where do you seem to put your endeavors?

[00:08:29] Damon Cook: Twitter.

[00:08:32] Nathan Wrigley: That’s the answer.

[00:08:33] Damon Cook: Yeah. That seems to be, it seems to be the most engaging and successful platform for that type of community. Which, with the current state of affairs there is concerning because I feel like there has been such a great buildup and yeah, it’s a great platform to engage with the community and reach a large audience.

So, I’ll be curious to see. I know lots of people are migrating to other platforms and there’s conversations of different experiments and explorations, which I think are great because, really I’m all for owning your content and however we can expedite that process for anybody is a cool thing.

But yeah, Twitter is the heart of a lot of it. But Slack, WordPress communities, Make communities even. Again, probably my bias is being in Gutenberg pull requests and issues, and trying to give feedback and even sharing some of the higher level issues to see if the community is interested in pursuing or giving feedback on those features, or if they’re just something that’s not even warranted to pursue.

I think there tends to be definitely bias of what, you know, a lot of these areas that we’re focusing on for new features can at times. Yeah. I think the more input we can and the more eyes then the better validation and verification of what we’re doing in Gutenberg and these new features. It helps at the end of the day.

[00:10:15] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, we’ll have to see what happens over on the Twitter side of things. We’re recording this episode at the ending of 2022 and a lot of flux, shall we say, over there at the moment. Let’s just see what happens. So it’s really curious though. Thank you.

So when we decided to have this podcast, we settled on the topic of, I’m just going to list them frankly. And then we can sort of dip into them one at a time or see where the conversation goes.

But you decided that you wanted to speak to your passions I guess. So things like the new, I’m going to use that word, I don’t know for how much longer I’m going to be using it. But the new block themes. The style engine, which I’m, I frankly need explaining to me. Global styles, the ability to style everything in the future of WordPress. So styling blocks, themes, patterns, and so on. WordPress 6.1 and all of the fun things that that brought around. And maybe we’ll get into the new theme of 2023. Which offers some really interesting capabilities.

But let’s just rewind the clock a little bit. Go back there to block themes and what have you. This is obviously something that you are excited about. They are new. I think for a lot of people, they still have a, beware, there be monsters kind of flag attached to them. You know, they’re happy with their customizer. They like the ability to change things in the way that they’ve always changed them.

That menu area where you could fiddle, under appearances menus. That was fine. Can we just keep that please? And of course, WordPress is moving in a different direction where all of this is being handled by blocks. And so I want to know what you think about it all.

[00:12:03] Damon Cook: Sure. Again, my bias is as a front end developer. So, the themes have been the heart of where I spend most of my day for the past decade as a developer. That tends to be where my passions lie. So block themes are definitely the evolution of so many things I’ve seen in the WordPress project. Like you mentioned, the customizer. I think that it had great potential, but at the end of the day, there was far too much compatibility issues from switching from themes, and how theme developers were implementing custom fields into the customizer, and custom entry points.

So when users were switching, there was an inconsistency. So I see the evolution that is putting the hands back into the users where, that’s where a lot of the potential lies, or lied, with the customizer because theme developers could add these bells and whistles that end users could customize.

So, the site editor is the evolution and, and in a lot of ways, I think there’s a revisiting of a lot of the APIs that were in the customizer but rethought in so many different ways, on so many different levels that they’re being abstracted and pulled apart. And so when they come back together, have so much more potential for developers and end users to extend, and build off of.

And so it is a struggle because a lot of the underlying code base is being produced as we speak. And it’s going fast, and it’s hard to understand at times. Even, like you mentioned, and I put on the show notes style engine. That is totally new to me, and something that came on to my radar in the 6.1 release like a month ago. Because I had not even heard of this package that is in Gutenberg called the Style Engine.

And I still don’t have a clear definition and understanding. But if I were to throw enough definition at it, I think it’s just a component of global styles, and really site editing to incorporate some of the classes that are used underneath in the code base.

So I know that a lot of feedback has been given about classes changing on certain elements and breaking things. And even the potential for builders to be able to assign custom classes to certain elements and have that spread throughout the whole site editing experience.

So, I think there is that drive in core to have those features, and the feedback is being heard. But it’s slow with great cause because there’s a lot of thought going into making sure it’s done right. So yeah, I think the style engine is a neat concept and I still am getting my head around a lot of it, but I think it’s got great potential.

[00:15:11] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. You mentioned a couple of things there, which I want to drill down on a little bit. The first one was the fact that the customizer offered an experience, which, for its day, I think was really ingenious. The ability to modify things and get a real time update. But of course, you are separating the area in which you can edit content from the area in which you interact with the way that the site looks, the styles and so on.

How the fonts will look, and what the background color of your body is, and so on and so forth. But you said that it was being implemented by theme authors in a whole host of different ways. So if I download and use one theme, I may have a very different experience once I dig into the menus. Theme authors were really doing things in ingenious ways, let’s not deny it. It was also potentially, if you swapped a theme for a different one, you could be, I guess, disorientated because one theme author has done something absolutely differently.

So let’s speak about that for a minute. Is the intention then you feel to make the whole experience, and I know we’re not there yet, the experience of the site editor, now called site editor, is still very confusing. But is the intention for it in the end, do you believe, to be one experience? The same experience, no matter what theme you end up using. You’re going to have a familiarity with the UI.

[00:16:40] Damon Cook: The simple answer, yes I do. But I think that there will definitely be some rough areas. I see potential and abstraction enough in some of these packages that, there’s definitely enough thought that if a user were to switch themes in the site editor, you know that there will be a lot less breaking, a lot less confusion.

Like you said, we’re certainly not there yet, but I think there’s a great, there’s enough thought and carefulness that’s going in consideration into the different packages and areas and features that make up site editing. So that the potential will be there that users can switch. But also users can switch and still maintain their customizations, right, within global styles. That’s a really complex thing to solve. But I think there’s definitely great consideration being applied there and making sure that that will happen. And so, yeah, I’m excited to see the future, that’s where it is for me.

[00:17:46] Nathan Wrigley: I have no idea how to square this circle. I really don’t know how to do it. But the whole problem of putting the site editor into WordPress, and for everybody to go, yay, this is exactly what we wanted. Because we do seem to have an era, right at the minute where, people are adopting it, other people are finding it difficult to adopt.

They’re holding off because they can see that it’s not where it needs to be. And I just don’t know what the solution could have been to make that transition as easy as possible. So we are in a situation right now where if you download a vanilla version of WordPress and put it on a site, you’re going to have the 2022 theme. But the editing experience for that will still be labeled as beta.

So in a way, it’s sort of saying, whoa, don’t go in here. This is likely to break. So the default editing experience is warning us off and be mindful of the fact that things may be damaged if you use this. But the traditional way worked. People that were happy with it are still happy with it.

There’s no period at which, hopefully, at least anyway, one is going to, the old way of doing things, if you like the classic themes, they’re not going to be put out to pasture at any point in the near future. So we’ve got try and swing people over gently. And I don’t know how that journey could have been achieved successfully, but it does feel as if maybe it’s put some people’s noses out of joint.

Of course there’s this whole other crowd of people that we are not used to talking to because they don’t yet exist. And what I mean by that is people who’ve never used WordPress and for them, they’re going to step into WordPress tomorrow, the day after.

And this will be the way that they’ve done it. What the heck? The customizer. What? I have no interest in that. That looks very strange. I’m used to this experience and I guess part of your job and part of everybody’s job in WordPress is to sort of bridge that gap and see how smooth we can make it.

[00:19:48] Damon Cook: Yeah, and I think that what excites me the most is the experimentation and exploration for even existing users. I mean, I think that some people are transitioning and exploring even new ways that even if they have the Gutenberg plugin installed and activated and are testing out things that aren’t ready for a production site necessarily, but really pushing the boundaries of what can be done.

And then, I think that can come back to influence the project and direction. So those edge cases and experimentations are definitely where things that get me excited. One thing I just saw that, it’s kind of a tangent I guess, but I saw that there’s a color randomizer that was introduced in Gutenberg, and I think that’s being, featured on, is it Anne McCarthy’s new call for full site editing outreach experiment.

[00:20:44] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, she does our outreach program. That’s right, yeah.

[00:20:46] Damon Cook: So that is a really neat exploration to have in the global styles. A little button you can randomize the colors and see that being applied. You’ll see the different colors applied to the theme, and so I think that type of exploration shows some of the excitement and some of the neat things that there is potential for.

There’s also the people, I mean, and I am totally like, how many people are going to use that? I don’t know, maybe two. But I think that that type of exploration can give great value if done carefully and considered what the outcomes are, and what the potential is. Whether that feature gets pulled into a final solution and product of WordPress core, I don’t know, that may not. But I’m sure that the outcomes will be documented, whether it’s in Gutenberg and whether that comes back up in two or three years as another exploration, you know. That’s something to learn from and build off of. So that stuff is, I think, super valuable.

[00:21:48] Nathan Wrigley: That’s a really interesting position you’ve taken there. I really hadn’t framed it in my head in that way too often, because when something like that comes along, it would seem that those people who aren’t going to make any use of it, the common clarion call is, well, who’s going to make use of it? What’s the point of this? Why have we got this, I don’t know, style randomizer that you’ve just mentioned? And, maybe the same could be true of things like the duotone option that was available. I haven’t really seen too much of the duotone out there in the wild.

So what I’m taking from that is that it was an interesting experiment. Nobody, well, not nobody, very few people made use of it. But the way that you just framed it was fascinating. It was more about, well let’s just try things. Throw spaghetti at the wall, and see what sticks. And maybe some of it is going to be the exact thing first time, but maybe not.

Maybe it’ll be a case of, what we’ve shown you here is what is possible, not how it will end up. Look, there is an option here. By clicking a button, you can dramatically change the style of your site, you can randomize it. But what if we didn’t want to randomize it completely? What if we could apply constraints to that randomization, so that it was broadly the same as it was before, but just a tiny bit different.

In other words, we varied your website, not completely randomized it. And so it can be iterated on. The goal isn’t to arrive at the end point, first time. It’s just, here’s an idea. Anybody going to make use of it? No, okay. We’ll move on. Or, yes, but not how it is. We’re going to iterate on it, so, yeah interesting.

[00:23:25] Damon Cook: Yeah, they’re experiments. I mean, it’s like good old science class. You do an experiment, document the outcomes. And I think that’s a really great way to look at it. Not everything is going to be a success. Experiments fail all the time. But, just as long as you can kinda learn and get the key takeaways and maybe revisit and iterate on a different type of that experiment. So yeah, I think it’s a great thing,

[00:23:51] Nathan Wrigley: Showing the boundaries of what might be possible, not necessarily what will be. Here’s the sort of thing that you can do. Here’s the direction that you could go in and what have you.

I feel like styles, you were mentioning there the ability to randomize them. I feel like styles is a real area of success in WordPress at the minute. Because we’ve got things like global styles in the latest iteration of the default theme, 2023. We’ve got this fabulous new thing, which certainly I think is fabulous, I think you do too, called style variations. Other things perhaps less successful. You know, the navigation block, I think still is broadly speaking too unfamiliar for many people to use it as a default. But yeah, styles. Styling everything, blocks, themes, patterns, and what have you, and style variations. Do you just want to tell us, because you wrote that in the show notes, you must have some, insight and excitement around it?

[00:24:49] Damon Cook: Yeah, style variations, I think that came out in 5.9 or maybe 6.0. With 6.1 that just came out, the core theme 2023 had a series of style variations within it. That was showing the potential of that new API. And again it’s a great exploration and I don’t think that every theme that’s going to be developed, or need to be developed, is going to need a style variation. But, the fact that those APIs are there and you can have that UI, that a user can just browse through and pick different styles and appearances, and get different looks to their site. I think is always something that’s going to land with developers and end users. Because yeah, the web is a big visual experience for a lot of us. So just seeing those changes in real life is always a great thing. And, there was about 10 style variations.

And so yeah, if you open up the 2023 theme and go into the global styles area, you can just browse different appearances and even save, if you like one, and start using it today.

[00:26:03] Nathan Wrigley: It really is remarkably clever and very, very interesting to look at. So, as you’ve just said, you download, start using the 2023 theme, and you’ve got these 10 contributed style variations. And really, in a sense, it’s almost like a theme within a theme. It’s almost like the 2023 theme is 10 themes. I’m over exaggerating it.

It really is just changing the styling. So the text is the same. The images, they remain the same. But it plays very nicely, like I said, these 10 contributed styles that were selected as the ones to go into the theme, they’re really, really different to each other. So in some of them the images, they have different border radiuss, you know, really startlingly, different border radiuss.

The typography’s changed, the background has changed. And for an end user, you are basically looking at a different website. And the ability to change that, I can’t see any people, well any clients, not at least thinking, well that’s a nice option to have. Nobody’s going to say, well, no, no. I don’t wish to ever be able to change the style of my website with the click of a button. That’s just such a great idea.

[00:27:15] Damon Cook: Yeah. And I think it, that even reinforces a lot of, I know that the introduction of the theme.json, right, using json file to right. A lot of people say, and it is if you’re essentially writing kind of a CSS abstraction, right, of styling your site in theme.json files. But I think that’s where, again I see the potential is. Yeah, you’re saving these styles as json objects, but you know, at the end of the day there’s so much more potential that, you know, you can take different json objects.

Maybe it’s styling the same exact thing. Maybe the theme is saying style buttons this way with this border, and then there’s a UI for the user to modify that border, and then take those json objects and synthesize them together. That is the potential of, again, going back to the customizer, if a user just switched themes and some of those stylings weren’t there, then they had a bad experience.

So I think the value of the theme.json file is hard for a lot of people to grasp, because especially if you’re familiar with writing CSS, you’re like, oh, I’m just writing CSS in a json file. But, yes you are. But, the way that data is being exchanged and can be exchanged in the future will have great potential and, really enable a lot of clever things, I think.

[00:28:44] Nathan Wrigley: Just to give some more context to that. Does the theme json file, for those people who are listening who don’t know what that is and don’t really want to get into that. Fear not, it’s not tremendously difficult, but also I think there’s a lot of tooling coming out, which is online platforms if you like, which will help you get through that.

There’s a lot of tutorials around now to help with that, much more so than there was a little while ago. But there are tools which are coming out which will enable you to create these files in a much more straightforward way than typing it into your IDE. But do you see that as a really nice bridge between swapping out themes, because it will provide consistency over time.

Things in the theme.json file will be immutable, if you like. And if you swap your theme for a completely different theme, hopefully, you won’t just be looking at a complete horror show where everything is completely different. We’re looking for a more consistent experience with these new adoptions.

[00:29:39] Damon Cook: Yeah, I think my mind definitely goes to the edge cases, well not the edge cases, but like AI. I mean you kind of have to make some inferences of if you’re going to take what the theme, it might be telling you, and trying to allow the user to override some of the things the theme might be setting.

First of all, you want, you want to make that optional, right? You want to be able to allow theme developers to even surface the UI. So, do they want the potential for somebody to change a button border? That should be an option. And if it’s enabled, how do we infer what the user has customized versus what the theme originally was doing?

I think you can kind of make some inferences there, but at the end of the day, there’ll probably be some rough edges that will break in changing themes. But I think that it has a greater potential in the current iteration of it, like the APIs with theme.json ,to make things easier to work with, and how they’re saved and exchanged. So, I’m not sure if that answered your question, but.

[00:30:52] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, it’s not the silver bullet, but it hopefully will provide a little bit of stability over time. And be less of a, of an experience that you described earlier with the customizer where swap themes and you really are left with a black hole that is hard to get out of.

Okay, so we’re recording this end of November, 2022. WordPress 6.1. Actually 6.1.1 as of a few hours ago. But, broadly speaking, WordPress 6.1 is the latest and greatest. You put in the show notes, the future of WordPress including 6.1 and beyond. What has got you excited in 6.1? What are some of the, the fun bells and whistles that you’ve enjoyed seeing?

[00:31:34] Damon Cook: I think some of the global styles work, like saving and importing and exporting for themes to allow end users and builders to create their own variations on a theme. That is currently being worked on, and I think has great potential and excites me. So that, again, it goes back to enabling a good theme switching experience for the end user and for builders and for developers.

Then I think there’s also more, I mean, in 6.1 there was a good deal of work in allowing the bridge between classic themes and block themes with allowing classic template parts to pull in patterns. And, even now I think there’s work for replacing a template part from patterns. Those types of things speak to the backwards compatibility of the project.

That stuff excites me the most is bridging that gap, because I think a lot of people are, it’s either a classic theme world or a block theme world. And so, if we can slowly onboard users and developers from classic theme to block theme development, then I think that’s always going to be a success for everyone.

[00:32:52] Nathan Wrigley: You, uh, you mentioned also in the show notes. One of the things that people listening to this may or may not know, is, they may have come across a plugin before called ACF. ACF stands for Advanced Custom Fields. I forget when, it was certainly before your time at WP Engine, but WP Engine acquired ACF. And, I can’t remember the route that it went. I think it went through Delicious Brains first, and then it ended up with WP Engine. It’s now under WP Engine’s stewardship. It’s a very popular plugin.

One of the fun things that you can do with ACF is to create blocks in, let’s just call it a simpler way. There’s less of a curve. You can stick with some of the things that you’ve known for years. You mentioned in the show notes you thought this was quite an interesting thing that you’ve been playing with lately. Tell us a little bit about ACF blocks and what you’ve been doing.

[00:33:40] Damon Cook: Yeah, I recently was able to revisit because I’ve used, I’ve been an ACF Pro user throughout my years as a developer and I’ve used it on projects and, it had been a while and the 6.0 release just came out. And so I was able to dig in and experiment with the current iteration of ACF blocks, which has great potential, I think, and is really useful.

And again, I think it bridges a gap for a lot of builders in creating custom blocks. I think it’s become a less of a need, because I think WordPress core has enough great blocks out of the box to use. But there’s always going to be potential for different accordions, tabs, those good old sliders, stuff like that.

And ACF definitely makes a great argument for using PHP and not even having to dabble in kind of the Gutenberg React, JavaScript world. So I think that makes sense for a lot of developers. Why start learning all this React stuff when I can just stick with PHP, and that makes sense to me. And I think that whatever gets you an end project done quicker than that, whatever works, that works.

[00:35:08] Nathan Wrigley: So is the idea of ACF blocks then that with an understanding of PHP, CSS and what have you? You can combine custom field groups, say, or a selection of custom fields. And you can have those be output in a block? So you’re in the Gutenberg editor, you drag in the ACF block that you’ve created, and whatever you’ve given it a name for. And then you can style it in Gutenberg based upon what you’ve set up. You can obviously, depending on what you’ve done, you can add in text or multiline text or date pickers or whatever it may be. Is that the promise of it?

[00:35:43] Damon Cook: Yeah, and I think for any ACF users that are already working with the field’s UI, registering and creating those fields in ACF and then assigning them to a custom block that you can just drag and drop into the editor, is quick and easy with ACF. And it makes sense in a lot of ways, because yeah, those fields are available in your block and you get the output that you expect.

I think there’s a little bit of a deviation in kind of the editor experience, because the way the fields, but that’s really on the developer and implementation really. I mean, you can go all out and try to make it a native feeling experience. And I think that there’s a lot of work even in ACF to give it that native experience. But yeah, I think having those fields available right on your block in the editor makes things easy to work with and makes sense at the end of the day.

[00:36:40] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, it’s a nice bridge isn’t it, for people who don’t wish to commit the time or the energy to learning those fairly difficult skills. You can stick with the skills that you’ve already got and use perhaps a tool that you’ve had lying around for a while in a new and interesting way.

And I also feel that the idea of being able to drop in custom blocks for your clients, whatever industry they’re in. I don’t know, you build a site for a real estate agent and managed to throw together a real estate block, which, you know, if you fill out the fields, there’s a house, that you can have on your website and all you had to do was drag in a block and complete the necessary fields.

It’s really great. Really interesting. Do you actually dabble in the, the React side of things? Do you build your own custom blocks? Is that something you have experimented with? And if the answer’s yes, how have you found that challenge?

[00:37:31] Damon Cook: Yes I do. And it is a challenge. I think that I tend to bounce between trying to learn React fundamentals, but mostly I think that I spend most of my time learning Gutenberg’s flavour of React, which makes more sense to me.

And makes more sense in that, it’s in WordPress and that’s the APIs that they’re spinning off is going to always, it’s going to mature and change a little bit, but that’s where I’d rather spend my time learning. But I think there are some key concepts in React fundamentals that it’s always good to go back and revisit. But, I do that sporadically. That’s even, uh, as a front end developer of 10 years, I still, you know, I’m still looking up HTML elements in MDN Mozilla.

But yeah, developing custom blocks I think has become a lot easier because I’ve developed them throughout the years in agency land and just the tooling has become a lot better and consistent. Still a ways to go in the documentation. And I think there’s a, a lot of great feedback on how to extend some of the tools to help enable custom block development.

Yeah, I think it’s come a long way and, there is the barrier to creating your first block is pretty low these days. And if anything, the biggest barriers are probably spinning up and setting up Node and NPM, which is understandably a pretty significant technical barrier. But, I think there’s a lot of great tutorials out there on that stuff as well.

[00:39:19] Nathan Wrigley: Given that your developer advocate role is your job, and you’re trying to bridge the gap, I guess, you’re trying to find ways to promote the community and help the community and so on. Are there any resources that you have found particularly useful? You mentioned that there’s more now than there ever has been, which is great, but are there any resources that you have personally found to be very useful about anything that we’ve talked about today? Whether that’s blocks, style variations, block themes, block patterns, whatever, just stuff that you’ve found to be useful, resources that we can mention.

[00:39:54] Damon Cook: Yeah, I think the Learn Team and learn.wordpress.org has been putting out some great material. Courses, video tutorials. So I think that has been a really great resource lately. Also, Carolina’s fullsiteediting.com. I think a lot of people find that very useful. She does a great job of keeping that up to date and so much, so much great resources there.

The only other, and I know this isn’t probably what everybody does with their free time, but, I actually find it interesting to open up GitHub and go into the Gutenberg project and just pick a package and start looking at code. But not everybody is a coder and not everybody’s a developer.

And, along those lines, I think if you are even on an early journey and have any interest in being a developer, I would focus more on just learning HTML and CSS. Then if you do someday want to open up Gutenberg and start looking at the code, I think that to have that background is, is far more important to get you into the larger stuff that goes on there.

[00:41:09] Nathan Wrigley: Damon, I am wondering if people have listened to this episode and they’ve thought, I would like to talk to Damon about this. Where could we find you? What social platforms do you use, or email address do you want to disclose? Entirely up to you. As much or as little as you like?

[00:41:24] Damon Cook: Hopefully Twitter is still very active. But that’s where I do spend a lot of my time still. So I am dcook on Twitter. So definitely reach out to me there. And I think I’m always in the WordPress Slack. Definitely lots of great content coming out of wpengine.com builders site in the future. We’re actually just starting to do some workshops as well. So look for announcements on Twitter through wpenginebuilders. That’s where mostly where I can be reached.

[00:41:59] Nathan Wrigley: Damon Cook, appreciate you chatting to us on the podcast today. Thank you very much.

[00:42:03] Damon Cook: Thank you.

On the podcast today, we have Damon Cook.

He’s a longtime user of WordPress, trying it first in around 2008. He’s worked for some of the largest WordPress agencies over the years, but his current role is that of Developer Advocate with WP Engine, where he engages with the WordPress community, trying to figure out where WordPress is headed.

Damon is on the podcast to talk about styling WordPress, and how it’s changing.

Until recently, if you wanted to modify your website’s appearance, you needed to work with the theme. Sometimes this could be done in the theme’s UI or in the WordPress Customizer, but if you really needed fine control, then it’s likely you edited the theme’s files or created a theme of your own. It can be quite a complex process.

Block-based themes are revolutionising website styling. You’re going to be able to change any aspect of your website from the UI that you’re familiar with. The hope is that it’ll make styling more accessible to a wider audience.

Damon talks about the fact that we’re in a period of flux right now. The documentation and tooling needed to work with website styles is maturing, but is by no means complete.

We talk through some new concepts which are underpinning all of this. Style variations, style engine, global styles, block themes, block patterns, theme.json. These are perhaps terms that you’ve heard being used, but might not be familiar with. Damon explains what they are and where they fit into the website styling jigsaw.

Towards the end we briefly get into work that Damon has been doing with ACF to make his own blocks, and how it provides a bridge for those people who are not yet familiar with React.

Useful links.

WP Engine

WP Engine Builders

Delicious Brains

Advanced Custom Fields

ACF Blocks

Learn WordPress website

Full site editing website

Gutenberg Project on GitHub


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