[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern. 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, a journey inside creating a block-based theme.
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 keen to hear from you and hopefully get you all your idea featured on the show. Head to WPTavern.com forward slash contact forward slash jukebox, and use the form there.
We released these podcast episodes every Wednesday, but next week there’s going to be a break. I’m going to be heading to WordCamp Europe in Athens to record some more interviews. And if you’re there, I do hope that our paths cross. Normal service will resume soon.
So on the podcast today we have Mike McAlister, and he’s here to talk about his experiences creating a block-based theme.
Mike is a veteran product developer and designer in the WordPress space. He founded and sold multiple WordPress products, like Array Themes and Atomic Blocks. Now he’s focused on the future of WordPress with his new product brand, Ollie.
Mike kicks off the podcast by telling us about his WordPress journey, and how WordPress blocks have renewed his passion for the platform. We get into some history and talk about the era when WordPress themes were extremely popular. Marketplaces like in Envato made it possible to sell themes and creates a career in ways hitherto unimagined.
Mike explains what the key differences are between a block-based theme and a classic theme. How it’s possible to create themes inside the editor and how you can do this without needing to know much code.
We talk about the fact that, if you are a coding expert, you could always create complex themes, but this fresh approach opens up the possibilities for those with less technical backgrounds. The experience in the editor might not be exactly what everyone wants, but it’s evolving quickly and maturing with every new release of WordPress.
The conversation moves onto why Mike is so confident that block-based themes are going to succeed. You don’t need to use one, and your trustee classic theme and the associated customizer, will work for the foreseeable future.
We then turn our attention to the technical hurdles that Mike has had to overcome. What new workflows and tools did he need to adopt and master to make his work possible? Mike’s been really focused on using WordPress core blocks to create his themes, digging into the weeds of what they can do and what their limitations are. It’s been a part of steady learning punctuated with minor setbacks when the editor and blocks are updated in unexpected ways. Thankfully, these bumps in the road are now relics of the past, as breaking changes have given way to stability.
We then talk about a specific theme that Mike has just released. It’s called Ollie, and it’s the focus of the rest of the podcast. How did Mike build Ollie, and what is he hoping to achieve with this new brand?
Patterns feature heavily in Ollie we talk about how it’s possible to alter the look and feel of your site quickly. Typography and colors are easy to change with the new suite of design tools which ship with WordPress.
If you’re wanting to develop block-based themes, or are just curious about how other developers are building them, this podcast is for you.
If you’re interested in finding out more, you can find all of the links in the show notes by heading to WPTavern.com forward slash podcast, where you’ll find all of the other episodes as well.
And so without further delay, I bring you Mike McAlister.
I am joined on the podcast today by Mike McAlister. Hello, Mike.
[00:04:51] Mike McAlister: Hello. Thanks for having me.
[00:04:52] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, you’re very welcome. Mike is going to be talking to us today about block based themes, block patterns, blocks in general, I’m sure. And if you haven’t been in the WordPress space for any great length of time, you are about to learn about Mike’s pretty impressive history in the WordPress space.
So Mike, it’s a fairly generic question, but I hope you don’t mind us asking you at first, just to orientate the listeners. Would you mind just telling us a little bit about yourself and your history, coding, theming, and whatever kind of other work you’ve done in the WordPress space.
[00:05:24] Mike McAlister: Absolutely. Yeah, I’ve been around WordPress for some time now, probably since about 2010. 2009, 2010. So fairly early on. And I think I came upon WordPress like many folks, building client sites and looking for just a better way to do it. You know, when you’re in that world and you stumble upon WordPress, you’re like, whoa, light bulb moment. This is going to be a game changer.
So yeah, I started pretty early on using WordPress to build websites for clients. And then at some point, I started to see the commercial aspect of it, right? Instead of building one theme for one client, I could build one theme and maybe sell it to a thousand different clients.
And so I experimented pretty early on with, you know, I have a history in design and so that was my focus. I thought that could be a differentiator for me. I’ll make themes that are just beautifully crafted, really lightweight. Maybe they don’t do everything under the hood, but they do specific things very well.
And so Array was the first theme shop that I had. And I operated all over the place. I had themes on my own site. I had them on the Themeforest marketplaces. I was selling themes on wordpress.com. So I was kind of everywhere and growing. And then at one point blocks became a thing, and so I dipped into there and started experimenting with blocks, via the Atomic Blocks theme which grew really quickly, it was one of the first block themes out there. And I think it was, blocks were still a really new thing and people were trying to understand what they were and what the benefits could be.
And so having a plugin out there with all these examples in it, and kind of showing that, oh no, you can replace all kinds of stuff. Like short codes and all of these other archaic ways of building could be done with blocks now.
So I worked on that for a bit. And then in 2018 WP Engine acquired both the theme shop and the Atomic Blocks plugin. And worked there for four and a half years, and then just recently I have gone back into the freelance and entrepreneurial space.
[00:07:21] Nathan Wrigley: Thank you very much indeed. That’s really, really interesting and it sounds to me at least anyway, as if you arrived on the WordPress scene, not only with the right products, but also at the right time. You kind of managed to hit that tidal wave just as it was creating out in the ocean somewhere.
And you had the product. Everybody was buying themes at that time. Became really, really popular. Do you consider yourself to have had a lucky break there, in the sense that, do you feel that that is something which can be repeated in the year 2023? Or do you think that block themes and just themes in general, the shine and the commercial prospects of that has dwindled a little bit?
[00:08:04] Mike McAlister: That early era was certainly something special. I think there was just so much attention focused on themes, and as this new shiny thing. And they unlocked a lot of capabilities for people. They were able to go from, trying to make their own sites. To making their own designs. To having these tried and tested templates.
And so that was a huge thing. And the rise of the Envato market at the time was a huge part of that success. Love it or hate it, at the time, that was a huge thing and proliferated WordPress themes out into the world, beyond our bubble. And so that I think was a huge deal at the time.
Now, whether or not now we can kind of replicate that is really tough to say, because since then the market has become quite saturated, in that there are so many different ways of building with WordPress. And you have things that are spinning off like Elementor going off into their own world.
They’re still kind of one foot in WordPress, one foot out. And we have all of these other. website builders that we didn’t have back then, other platforms. So there’s just so many different ways to build a website. WordPress is still massively popular, even if it’s slowly declining.
We still have such a huge footprint on the web that it, there’s a ton of potential So, I don’t think we’ll see the same wave we saw before. I do think though that this whole new world of the block paradigm and block themes. It is the biggest opportunity commercially in WordPress I think that we’ve seen in a very long time. It may be the biggest we see for a long time.
[00:09:38] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. I think we should probably stray into that right, the outset, if that’s okay. Because, there’s probably a proportion of people who are listening to this podcast who are very, very technical. They completely get what you mean by block based themes and the opportunity afforded there.
But equally, there may be a bunch of people who are listening to this who genuinely have no idea that there is such a thing as a block based theme. They’ve got a, what we would now call a classic theme, and it’s installed and it has been for a long time. And as far as they’re aware, there’s no change in their WordPress website. Things just carry on as normal.
But are you able to describe to us, I know this is a difficult question, and certainly trying to cram it into a portion of a WordPress podcast is a big ask. But are you able to give us a high level view on what a block theme is, and how it differs from a classic theme? Something which you might know, if you’ve got access to the customizer, you have a classic theme. If you don’t, you don’t. And so let’s take it from there. What are they and what do they promise?
[00:10:34] Mike McAlister: Absolutely. So, let’s first just do quick block refresher in general. So blocks, instead of throwing your content all into TinyMCE or the content area, and kind of making it mostly text-based, and throwing some other little elements in with things like short codes, like we used to do in the past. Blocks, they’re basically content elements. It could be anything from a button, to a paragraph, to an image gallery, to a slider.
And all of these things you add to the WordPress editor. And they could be used to build, you know, more beautiful content. They could be used to build page sections. They can be used to build a full page. And you put together enough blocks, and you can build an entire theme with it, right? So, WordPress comes with many blocks built in. And all of these things you use to build your website now.
So with that in mind, block themes are effectively entire WordPress themes that are built entirely with blocks. And the benefit of that is that it makes your website almost entirely editable by you, in the editor. So instead of having to, you know, if you want to change your header, instead of going into the code and opening up the code editor and tinkering there and saving and going back to your site. You can go into the site editor and WordPress, which is effectively a interface inside the WordPress admin, where you can create your header.
You can modify it. You can change the colors. You can add new links. You can change out your site logo. And all of that happens in the editor. It can be a no-code or low-code experience for you. So the benefit here is the customization, right? We can now get closer to the experience that you might have seen at something like a Squarespace or Wix where the interface and the experience is tailored around creation, and it’s more focused around that.
[00:12:31] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, I guess if you are an expert themer and you’ve been creating themes for years, what it brings to the table, the way that you construct them is different. But you’ve always been able to achieve whatever it is that you wanted to achieve because you could write the code. But I suppose what this is bringing is the capability for non-technical people to be able to modify just any part of the site.
I guess the header is typically fairly constrained, you know, header, navigation, logo, that kind of thing is normally what we see. But perhaps a better example would be a footer. Because typically your footer would be controlled by the theme and you’d go into the customizer and modify whatever options were available to you.
Whereas now you can just build out rows, columns, put in images, put in contact forms, whatever you like, other navigation menus, anything. If you can imagine it as something that you can build in the block editor, that can then become your footer. You don’t need to dabble in any code at all. There’s a lot going on there, but you don’t need to be involved in that.
And so non-technical people can become involved in that process and, you know, enjoy creating different aspects, different parts of their theme. That being said, what are your thoughts on the state of the UI for editing themes at the moment? We’re in May 2023. Version 6.2 of WordPress is the current latest version.
And I think it’s fair to say that it’s not where it probably wants to be in the end, but how do you think about it? How do you think about the UI? You’ve probably been in there, you’ve ironed out all the kinks, and got over all the road bumps that were in the way. But for a typical user, a non-technical user, do you feel it’s delivered on the promise that it hoped to?
[00:14:09] Mike McAlister: I don’t think so yet. I talked to all kinds of WordPress users from novices to veterans. And the number one thing that always comes up is the UI the UX, the experience. And, you know, I get it because we’ve known WordPress for 20 years now. We’re celebrating a 20 year anniversary right now.
And it has been one way for a very long time. And even some of the big changes that came, like the customizer, they weren’t that big of a change, right? They were bolted on and they were additive and iterative. But the block editor and going into the site editor and full site editing, these kinds of things, it’s quite different.
It’s adding a lot to WordPress. It’s a lot of new context. It’s a lot of new paradigms. It’s a lot of new workflows, and I think that is a very difficult thing for people to figure out. Especially with the past few years where things have been shifting so much and people don’t know quite when to hop in. And then when they do, it doesn’t work exactly like they had anticipated.
Or some of the features are released as working prototypes. We’re kind of met with these things. And so I get the frustration when you hop in there and somebody’s telling you, oh, it’s way better, and you can do all this stuff now, and you’re, you install a block theme from dot org and it’s like half busted, and the styles don’t work and you don’t know your way around. So I get it. It can be a very frustrating experience.
I will say the past few releases I think have been a lot better. And they’re ironing out a lot of the kinks. The ground underneath the software isn’t moving as much from release to release. And if you follow along on some of the GitHub tickets or you stumble into some of those, there’s a great deal of discussion going on about the many shortcomings of the UX. And so it is something that’s always being worked on. And I think it’s important to just remember that.
It is never going to be easy to change, to drastically change, a piece of software that is being used for so many use cases, for so many people. We know it powers half the web and to make a leap into the block era like this, it was never going to be easy. It was never going to be comfortable.
We hope that it will be worth it in that, these kind of growing pains in this transition will give us a new era. It will refresh WordPress. It will make it viable for another 10, 20 years. It will give us the new tools to keep up with these other platforms that are maybe outperforming us. And so while the growing pains are there and the experience is a little rough, I do think that it is all for the greater good of the software.
[00:16:45] Nathan Wrigley: Let’s explore the sort of reverse of that, if you like. And I’m going to use a product that I have as an example. I use Gmail to do my emails. And I have this Chrome extension, and the Chrome extension alters the Gmail interface in a way, which allows me to be slightly more productive. I won’t get into the detail, but it does that.
And every couple of weeks something breaks, because Gmail alter some aspect of their interface. And the guy that makes the Chrome extension, he’s not in the loop of that. And the thing breaks and he has to contact all of his users and say, right on it. And gets it fixed and so on and so forth.
And I feel, as we’re going to discuss in the future, you are now really committed to having a proportion of your income come from block based themes, and yet at the same time, although you’ve got, you’ve got a voice there and you’ve definitely got skin in the game. You are reliant upon the technology stack that is WordPress and it’s in a constant state of flux.
You said it’s not quite there yet. I just wondered, and I don’t wish for you to become incendiary or anything like that. I wondered if you could highlight some of the grievances that you, well, not grievances, some of the things that you wish were better right now. Some of the areas where, if you could be in control of just fixing it by clicking your fingers, what would you amend?
[00:18:03] Mike McAlister: Ooh, that’s a, that’s a really good question. Although I’m just releasing a block theme now, I’ve been dipping into and exploring block themes for years now. And only until recently did I feel like, okay, this is ready enough to put something out there. Because I’ve run a product business before, and a WordPress theme business before and support is a huge part of that, right?
And in these early days of the block editor and block themes, with it being, you know, on a bit of shaky ground. Putting something out there I’ve seen it as like a support nightmare. I’m going to end up not just supporting my theme, I’m going to end up educating people on tons and tons of WordPress features, which I think that’s okay and great. And I think it’s actually a business model in itself.
You don’t want to take on the frustration of the users, and have them funnel that through to something that’s your product, right? And they look at something I’m making and say, this thing sucks, or whatever. When really it’s just they don’t know this new WordPress yet, or they haven’t had the time, or that the pitfalls and the UX hurdles are being kind of painted onto your product. So yeah, I think up until recently I’ve felt like, okay, this is, it’s still going to be a bit of a transition, but I think it’ll be less painful.
So that being said if I could snap my fingers and have one thing, well I’ve just recently written a post about responsive controls, which is another big hurdle. But I think even more than that, I would snap my fingers and bring together this UI UX in a way that makes a lot more sense.
I feel like we’re in two worlds here. I think we have many remnants of the old WordPress. In fact, if you’re not in the site editor, you maybe wouldn’t even know that there’s a new WordPress. You’re looking at the same sidebar, same posts, pages. All of that is the same and that’s great. That’s worked well for a long time.
But now we have our other foot in this whole new era of the site editor and block editor and blocks and block themes. And then when you’re in the site editor you can edit things live and do all this stuff. And so I feel like there are two entirely different WordPresses existing in WP admin. And it is, to me, not a great experience. I feel like if we’re going to go this route, I feel like it should be almost entirely wrapped around the site editor experience, and we’re able to do almost everything in there.
And that gives us an opportunity to maybe rethink, and this is, I know, grandiose and big ideas, and there’s probably a lot of people who are cringing at the thought of redoing a lot of WordPress. But I think that there is an argument to be made about kind of moving forward in a more bold and meaningful way. And tying that experience together. So that when you’re editing a page, it looks like you’re editing a page, and not like you’re editing a page with content field or something like that, you know? So the great unification of sorts.
[00:20:57] Nathan Wrigley: Thank you. That’s really fascinating. In terms of the skillset that you’ve had to adopt over the last period of time. When you decided, okay, I’m going to go all in on blocks. And it sounds like you’ve been doing this really, right from the beginning, which is fairly impressive. Very prescient of you.
What are the new interesting, perhaps difficult, things that you’ve had to learn? The new tooling that you’ve had to acquire? What has had to become part of workflow over the last few years, which is different from how it would’ve been five, six years ago?
[00:21:26] Mike McAlister: Yeah, it’s It’s quite fascinating actually, because I think those of us who are in WordPress a long time, you would typically think that the answer would be like, oh, I had to learn Webpack or React or whatever. And if you’re building blocks, that might be the case. When I’m talking about block themes, it’s not a technical skillset that I’ve had to pick up.
But literally just spending the time in WordPress and understanding how all these things work together. Learning fluently how to build with all of the core blocks, in a way that you can build a layout using columns and groups, and the alignment settings, and justification and the row block. It is a skill that has to be learned use all these things fluently, and to just know it like the back of your hand so that you can go and build out a pattern, a page, whatever it is.
And that did take, even for a WordPress veteran like me, quite a bit of time to get fluid with that stuff. But learning all of that stuff and then kind of dipping into block themes, that made that process a whole lot easier. Because block themes are just all of those things. It’s the row block. It’s the group block. It’s using the padding settings and building a design system with theme json.
So that becomes a skillset in itself. And that’s where I spent so much time. And I think that’s why when I released this Ollie theme that we’ll talk about, I think a lot of people were kind of like blown away. Like, oh, you can do all this with this new stuff. And it’s all core and native features.
But it took me a long time to pull all that stuff together and to be able to present it and a package that was like, oh, okay, this is coherent and well made and well designed and it actually works.
[00:23:07] Nathan Wrigley: How much does the sand shift beneath your feet? So you mentioned earlier about getting skilled with the interface and using the group block and managing it to make these pixel perfect, really beautiful layouts which we’ll get onto in a moment. How steady has that process been?
Or have you noticed that your designs from, well, let’s not say month to month, maybe half a year to half a year. Are there things which come along in the core blocks, changes which are made in the core blocks, which upset what you’ve managed to lay out in this perfect way? Or has the progress been steady away? Everything looks the same today as it did a year ago.
[00:23:43] Mike McAlister: At this point, it’s very steady. The core blocks, the group blocks and things like this, buttons. These are not changing in any major way. There are little additions being made, but they’re iterative, and they’re backwards compatible as far as I’ve seen. There might be every once in a while, the spacing’s a little off or something like that and usually gets fixed pretty good.
But I think with the amount of people using the Gutenberg plugin, where a lot of these big features are tried and tested and workshopped. I think there’s a good amount of eyeballs on these features there. That definitely helps, by the time it gets to core, it’s been vetted, it’s been worked out.
People actually build with Gutenberg enabled. So I think there’s that. And so these days, when creating a theme, I didn’t have any major issues with the fundamentals.
[00:24:31] Nathan Wrigley: Nice. I’m going to direct everybody listening to this podcast. Maybe just pause and go to this URL. The URL is olliewp.com. It is, as you might expect, o l l i e w p .com and have a little poke around. Have a look at what Mike has built, and what’s on offer. But just tell us about the theme itself. I’ve had a little bit of a play.
I downloaded it. Currently, we can get onto this and the reasons for moment, it’s on, available on GitHub. You download it from there, and I installed it on a local install and had a play. Tell us a little bit, what’s the thinking here? Are you trying to make one theme that anybody can use? Do you have a particular niche in mind? What’s going on with Ollie?
[00:25:13] Mike McAlister: I think Ollie started as an experiment for myself. I used it as an opportunity to, like I was saying, to learn all of these features. And one of the best ways to learn them is to build a block theme. Because it forces you to use all these different things, like patterns and global styles, and theme json. All of these features that make up a good block theme.
So, I started it as an experiment to learn, and then along the way, you know, as a product minded person, and somebody who’s had a theme shop before, I thought, no, there is some commercial value here. I don’t know what it is yet. But I thought on top of it being a potential pivot for me to do, I just saw it as an opportunity to dip back into WordPress in a more meaningful way, in the product space.
And I like creating things that people can learn from. I like putting things together in a package that you can hand off to somebody or send them the repo and they can see, and pick through the code and learn. And so that was the kind of intent behind Ollie. And right now it is, it’s just one theme with a bunch of beautiful patterns in it that you can use to quickly build out pages.
I’m just using this early phase of Ollie to see what people think. How are people building with block themes? Are they building block themes? I think there’s so much unknown about this space because it’s so new, I’m just kind of sitting back and just learning and listening and watching people.
Do they want more patterns? Do they want pre-made sites with block themes? There’s so many questions that I have. I’m using it as an opportunity to effectively ask these questions and learn.
[00:26:41] Nathan Wrigley: The thing that really struck me, I should add at this point that I saw this from an article in the WP Tavern, which Sarah Gooding wrote on April 26th, 2023. I’ll link to that in the show notes. The thing that struck me immediately was the patterns. And I saw screenshots of the patterns and I thought, wow, they look great.
And there was a video that I think she put together, scrolling through some of the patterns and thought actually that’s new, that’s interesting. They are right on the money for me. They look how I wish I could do things. And so downloaded the theme and really discovered that you really have gone to town with the patterns. I don’t know what the number is. It certainly looks like it’s more than 50 or 60 or something like that.
That feels like where a lot of your endeavors have gone. So you’ve categorized them, obviously now in the site editor you can you click on the patterns button and then subcategories come down. And then a nice thumbnail appears, and you can enlarge those if you wish, on a big modal, which takes up the whole screen and so on.
You’ll see straight away that the effort in building a typical website, brochure site for somebody has been taken away. So that’s my question. Did you approach this with patterns in mind? Like this is going to be a repository of great patterns and the rest hopefully will build itself, if you know what I mean.
[00:27:56] Mike McAlister: Yeah, absolutely. I knew right away patterns were and are going to be a huge deal. Way back, late 2019, I was even playing with this rudimentary idea of what patterns could be with my friend John Paris. We experimented and prototyped out this idea of sections and layouts in WordPress. And it was effectively what would become patterns. This idea that you have pre-designed sections of your site, that you can click together like Lego pieces and make full layouts.
I’ve always looked at patterns as a huge opportunity because it takes the pain out of building websites or even just sections. If I’m able to put together a beautifully designed hero section, or a featured section with blocks and make it look great and hand it over to you. You can throw that on your page. You don’t have to mess with the design. You just tweak the colors if you want, and change the content. And then you go about your business.
We’ve removed the pain of even you having to build your own blocks or your own patterns. And hopefully that is the paradigm that we go with. Hopefully people latch onto this idea that maybe I don’t have to tinker with every single part of my website. Maybe just going with these beautiful designs, changing the content, changing the color, and then focusing on my content, and focusing on my audience and focusing on my following. And I think the patterns are going to be a huge deal for sure.
[00:29:21] Nathan Wrigley: Truly I think the designs are absolutely fabulous. They are categorized into posts, texts, call to action, cards, features, heroes, pages, prices and testimonials. Who knows, maybe that will be expanded over time. But in each of those there’s in some cases a handful and in many cases multiple dozens really of different patterns that you can select.
And if you’ve never had the experience of doing this in a theme, you just pick on one that you like, and you just click on the icon and there it is. It’s now the next part of your website. And you can then amend it, you can change it.
Give us a bit of an insight into what people can do in terms of saving things. So let’s imagine that they’re using yours as sort of boiler plate and they’re going to click things in, but they want to amend the colors. Yours is fairly opinionated. It’s nice dark black, and there’s this lovely kind of blue color, which dominates everywhere. But obviously that might not fit with everybody.
Is it fairly straightforward, again for inexperienced users, to save those and modify them and keep their own modifications with this new site editing interface?
[00:30:25] Mike McAlister: Absolutely. That’s kind of the beautiful part about this, right? Is that you can go into one of your preexisting pages and click to add one of the patterns I’ve designed, and put it on your page. Or you can throw a full layout, which I’ve included a few full layouts, like home, about, and features, and things like this.
You throw it onto your page. You customize it how you want. You can change the content inline. You can change the colors on the page if you want. Or you can go to the global styles in the site editor, and you can change that bluish purple color that I’ve chosen to whatever color you want, your brand color. And instead of going through and changing it in every little pattern, it will change that color on every single pattern I’ve included in this theme.
So you don’t have to go change the colors anywhere. It will literally propagate that color throughout the whole site. Because this whole thing is a live design system, right? It’s effectively a design system that is tied into every aspect of WordPress. So when you’re in the site editor, when you’re in posts, when you’re in pages, all of these styles travel with these patterns.
Even typography, you don’t like the font? You can change the font. It’ll propagate through the whole thing because that’s how this is all wired up. So yeah, so if you want to go in and change a page, all you do is, you go in there, add a pattern, save it. Save it just like you would any other page. And it’s good to go.
[00:31:47] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, it is increasingly becoming a really compelling system. It just requires people like you to get as many people over that hump as possible and experiencing it. But I can only say if you download it, have a go. Within minutes I suspect that you’ll have something that you are very, very happy with and that you can modify.
In terms of the patterns of themselves, is that an area that you’ve explored? Or would like to explore commercially? So okay, I know you’ve got Ollie, but have you given any thought to the commercial possibilities of just patterns, simply patterns? Not bound to any theme. Just a downloadable set of patterns. And obviously you’re a very, very credible designer, we can see that. That you could then give to people, sell to people, so that they can download them into any site no matter what block-based theme they’re using.
[00:32:34] Mike McAlister: I always knew patterns were going to be a big deal. But I think, after just releasing Ollie to GitHub and seeing it get picked up by a few news outlets and some people on YouTube, were making videos about it. I think the number one thing everyone always raves about is the patterns. And maybe if they’ve explored patterns before on wordpress.org or used other themes that have patterns.
I don’t know if they’re just kind of underwhelming typically. But I think I did spend a great deal of time making sure these patterns were making a statement. They are saying, no you can do this in WordPress. I wanted to prove that I can design something as good, if not better, than what we had before. And I’ll do it all with blocks, native blocks. Not one custom blocks in there. These are all just core blocks, and they’re going to be beautiful, and they’ll be fully responsive and fully customizable.
And so, I think that’s what people see. And when they see these patterns and how they all cohesively fit together. You can pop these onto a page in any different order and they kind of just fit together and that’s part of the overall design system. But yeah, so I see patterns as a huge opportunity and I wasn’t sure commercially. And still I don’t know. I’m using this opportunity to ask a lot of questions.
But I think the first few weeks, the response has been largely very positive about patterns. And so I’m definitely curious about that. And I think there’s opportunities to do more advanced patterns, and maybe use some pro blocks to make patterns even more appealing. So yeah, pro patterns is definitely something I’m exploring
[00:34:07] Nathan Wrigley: You mentioned that you’d spent a lot of time learning the core blocks, and you also just mentioned that everything that comes with Ollie is based around a core block. Was that a straightforward experience? Or did you find that there are certain limitations in what you could achieve based upon the capabilities of core blocks? Or would you say basically you can implement almost any design you wish with core block? Certainly looks like you’ve managed to achieve that.
[00:34:34] Mike McAlister: Sometimes I’d have an idea of what I wanted to do, and couldn’t quite do it. But I think if you get clever, you can get really close, right? For example, I would love if WordPress had a icon block. A core icon block that we could tie into. I don’t want to have to make my own, because there’s a bunch out there.
And I also, you know, in terms of the ease of distribution and giving customers designs right out of the box. I don’t want them to have to install a plugin to do it. And icons are so prolific. I would just hope that we could have that in core. Well, we can’t have that yet. And so, when doing simple things like wanting to add an icon here for people to see like, kinda like a placeholder for an image or an icon.
I used the HTML star, right? And I use that in ratings, you know, in design, like if you want to put a rating there, I put like five HTML stars, and I use it on feature sections. So, clever little things like that. It’s giving people enough to understand, oh this is what this is meant to be. This is the design. Oh, I might put my own icon here. Or even things like cleverly using the rows and group blocks to get things aligned how you want. Grouping of blocks to do unique things with them, spacing wise. It’s just a lot of clever usage of what’s there.
And I think part of that does come from tinkering enough. And if you really want to get that design out of your head and on to the page, you’ll figure it out. But it might take, it might take some tinkering.
[00:36:01] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, I’m on the install that I have at the moment and I’m on the star rating. You’ve got five stars, and I can see that they’re using paragraph blocks. And then elsewhere you’re using the social icons block to display those social icons. And I guess that’s the experience you would want, is just pick an icon, much like you do in the social icons block and make it more straightforward. That’s really interesting.
Why GitHub? Why not the WordPress repo? Was there some sort of decision there? Again, I should emphasize it, at this moment in time, if you want to grab this theme, you’re going to be heading over to GitHub and downloading it. Why there and not in the repo? Is there a decision behind that?
[00:36:36] Mike McAlister: No philosophical decision. I think it will be on the repo soon actually. Like I said, with these block themes, there’s so much to learn and I wanted to put it out there. You know, it worked great for me when I was building it and making it. But I wanted to get it out there and get people using it to understand if there was any major shortcomings or just catch any early usability patterns that I was seeing. Any issues like that and see like, oh, actually people don’t love these patterns.
Or, is there something about the workflow that I could improve before releasing it to a wider audience? So, I just mostly wanted to iron out all the kinks and GitHub was just the obvious place to do that. But to be honest a lot of the quirks that people have brought up with the theme on GitHub and the GitHub issues and stuff, are largely just Core issues. Just usability, preferences and workflow preferences and things like that.
I haven’t uncovered any major issues and so I feel like what I’m going to do is kind of wrap it up. It’s already fully tested and gone through the theme check and everything. So it’s pretty much ready to go. And I think I’ll do that in the next week or two.
[00:37:41] Nathan Wrigley: Oh, okay. In that case, by the time this podcast airs, this question will be somewhat moot. But anyway, worth, asking I think. I noticed as I was moving around on the site, olliewp.com. I noticed buried somewhere was referenced to Ollie Cloud, and that got me thinking, okay, in that case, is Ollie something bigger than simply this one theme?
And so that’s where I’m going to take the conversation next. Is Ollie, in the same way that you had Array Themes and you had Atomic Blocks. Is Ollie something bigger for you, Mike? Is that a direction that you’re going to take it in? Are you now hoping to, sort of, have a bunch of things wrapped around in the Ollie branding?
[00:38:22] Mike McAlister: I think so. I wasn’t sure about that initially. Again, this just kind of started as a experimental WordPress theme. But I don’t know the product creator in me, the entrepreneur in me, always tries to see things from that sphere as well. And so as I’m looking at the WordPress ecosystem, and I’m exploring what is this thing like now? It’s been a while since I’ve had a product out there.
I do see all kinds of opportunities, and I’m still learning what they are. But I also have my own opinionated ideas about how we could wrap up this new, all these new capabilities, and deliver a new experience. A premium experience with some of this stuff. And so, on the Ollie WP website I had, I do have a box at the bottom about Ollie Cloud. And the idea there, I think is it could be Ollie Cloud, it could be Ollie Pro. I don’t know. I’m really just gathering feedback and seeing what people want, as I mentioned.
But the idea is that all of these new features, these theme assets, patterns and theme json files and all that stuff. They’re all very lightweight, and very movable, and very modular, and they can kind of plug and play in to WordPress. And I don’t know, I think there’s an interesting idea about the experience about how we build sites these days.
Should you have to start from scratch on every site? And should we still be copying and pasting themes around like it’s the mid two thousands? And is there a better way of doing that? Is there a better way of pulling in a site template?
There’s a lot of interesting things there and I think, another thing I’m learning, and I think we’ve seen just generally is that, I don’t know, I think users are maybe a little fatigued with that in WordPress. Starting with a blank slate and being like, ugh, I have to find a theme and then I have to maybe try out a few themes, and then I don’t know if I need to pay for one, and then I need a form block, and then all of a sudden I need a buy a contact form.
And then there’s a bunch of upsells for contact forms. And I don’t know. All that stuff to me, after all these years on WordPress, feels kind of icky. Uh, I guess. And I think customers and users want experiences and solutions more than they want individual themes and plugins. So a premium offering or a premium experience is something I’m interested in. What kind of experience can we do differently that delivers the same result, but takes all of the pain building on WordPress?
[00:40:46] Nathan Wrigley: It kind of feels as if you may be repeating history for yourself here in that, you know, 2010. Array themes, we mentioned you were right there at the beginning of that tidal wave. Maybe with a fair wind, the same thing may happen again here? You may well have discovered that seam of gold, just as it’s starting to take off. Because all the chatter that I’m listening to at the moment is very much related to blocks and exploring patterns, blocks, block based themes, and how you can maybe tie those three things together.
And pro blocks, which bring additional functionality. You know, areas where Core perhaps doesn’t cut it. I’m thinking, in my case, one that just keeps coming into my head is a superior navigation block, that does a whole load of styling and what have you. And who knows what’s going to be around in two or three years time? But there do seem to be companies who are straying into this and dabbling with it and trying, like you are, I guess, to figure out what the landscape may look like.
[00:41:43] Mike McAlister: Yeah, I’m just as unsure I think as anybody about where this thing goes. But I’ve never been afraid to try and put in the work to get something going and see where it goes. Like I said at the top, I think there’s an opportunity here that we’ve not seen in a long time in WordPress and may never see again.
And if these are the early days of the new generation of WordPress, I’m certainly going to try and throw my hat into the ring and craft a new experience, and maybe rebrand WordPress, and help outside folks see WordPress in a new light. Because I think that’s a huge part of this new reboot. Is that WordPress maybe hasn’t been traditionally like, quote unquote cool, to a lot of web folks.
It’s certainly very popular and very prolific, but we maybe haven’t attracted the best talent and the best coverage in the wider web world. So, I look at it as an opportunity to rebrand that and maybe grab another cohort of the web that we haven’t had yet. And I think part of that is new products, and different products, and better looking products, and better experiences, and taking some of the pain out of WordPress that we’ve traditionally had.
[00:42:57] Nathan Wrigley: If somebody listening to this is inspired about block themes in general, because that’s been the broad tenor of what we’ve talked about. Do you have any names to drop or resources that you’ve used, that enabled you to learn this kind of stuff? And if you do mention anything, I will endeavor to link it into the show notes.
I don’t mean like a laundry list of hundreds of things, but a couple of things which you thought, actually, for those that are exploring this, this is a really great resource. This is a really profoundly interesting person and so on.
[00:43:24] Mike McAlister: Yeah. First I would start, I’m somebody who I need to work from examples. I need to see the code and I need to see the, a working thing to get inspired and know how to do things. So, on that note you mentioned that Ollie is on GitHub. It will remain there. This version of Ollie that I’m putting out is always going to be free. And always going to be on GitHub. So it is a great resource for picking through the code, especially theme json, where I think there’s so, so much you can do in there, but it is hard to understand what you can do when you’re kind of looking at it from the outside.
So if you’re curious, start there, because I’ve wired this thing together. I think how it should be, or largely how it should be at this moment in time. And so it’ll give you a great headstart and great understanding of how all these things tie together. So start there.
And in terms of people, I actually, on my Twitter list or on my Twitter page, I have a list of WordPressers. And on that list is a great many folks who are a lot of voices in this stuff. WordPress Core folks like Nick Diego and Rich Tabor, and Carolina Nymark. These people spent a great deal of their time in WordPress, and listening to WordPress conversations, and taking part in the GitHub conversations. So I would check out that list. I can actually send it over to Nathan as well if he wants to include it?
[00:44:43] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, that’d be great. I will in some way copy and paste it into the show notes or somehow link to it. But yeah, that’s really helpful. Thank you so much.
[00:44:50] Mike McAlister: Twitter is, love it or hate it. It is where traditionally the WordPress community has hung out, and so it still is the case, even though some people are coming and going. It still is where a lot of conversation happens on WordPress and WordPress development and what’s new. And so it is a good place even if you just want to read and follow along. It is a good place to see those conversations.
[00:45:13] Nathan Wrigley: I will link to whatever it is that you send me, Mike. Thank you for that. Okay, just one final question. It’s more about people finding you really. If somebody’s listened to this and their interest has been peaked. What are the the best ways, it sounds like it might be Twitter, but it may not be. What are the best ways to get in touch with you, Mike?
[00:45:32] Mike McAlister: Yeah, I’m most active on Twitter. Like I said, I think that’s kind of where our community is still thriving. And so, yeah, I’m on Twitter largely. My personal account is @mikemcalister. I do a great deal of tweeting about WordPress and design and the intersection of all these different things.
And then, there’s a dedicated Twitter account for Ollie as well. You can follow that, that’s @buildwithollie. I’m also writing on the Ollie WP blog fairly regularly. So this is another place where I’m able to share my learnings of all of this stuff with block themes and WordPress in general. And, I’m writing some long form content, some short tips and tricks and, that’s all the time I have to hang out.
[00:46:17] Nathan Wrigley: You have other important things to by the sounds of it. Mike, really appreciate you chatting to us today. Thank you so much, and every success with Ollie, whatever direction you take with that.
[00:46:28] Mike McAlister: Thank you so much. I love chatting about this stuff and this was a great form for that, so thank you.
On the podcast today we have Mike McAlister, and he’s here today to talk about his experiences creating a block-based theme.
Mike is a veteran product developer and designer in the WordPress space. He’s founded and sold multiple WordPress products like Array Themes and Atomic Blocks. Now he’s focused on the future of WordPress with his new product brand, Ollie.
Mike kicks off the podcast by telling us about his WordPress journey, and how WordPress blocks have renewed his passion for the platform.
We get into some history, and talk about the era when WordPress themes were extremely popular. Marketplaces like Envato made it possible to sell themes and create a career in ways hitherto unimagined.
Mike explains what the key differences are between a block-based theme and a classic theme. How it’s possible to create themes inside the editor, and how you can do this without needing to know much code. We talk about the fact that, if you’re a coding expert, you could always create complex themes, but this fresh approach opens up the possibilities for those with less technical backgrounds. The experience in the editor might not be exactly what everyone wants, but it’s evolving quickly and maturing with every new release of WordPress.
The conversation moves onto why Mike is so confident that block-based themes are going to succeed. You don’t need to use one, and your trusty classic theme and the associated Customizer will work for the foreseeable future.
We then turn our attention to the technical hurdles that Mike has had to overcome. What new workflows and tools did he need to adopt and master to make his work possible? Mike’s been really focussed on using WordPress Core Blocks to create his themes, digging into the weeds of what they can do and what their limitations are. It’s been a path of steady learning, punctuated with minor setbacks when the editor and blocks are updated in unexpected ways. Thankfully, these bumps in the road are now relics of the past, as breaking changes have given way to stability.
We then talk about a specific theme that Mike has just released. It’s called Ollie, and it’s the focus of the rest of the podcast. How did Mike build Ollie, and what is he hoping to achieve with this new brand?
Patterns feature heavily in Ollie and we talk about how it’s possible to alter the look and feel of your site quickly. Typography and colours are easy to change with the new suite of design tools which ship with WordPress.
If you’re wanting to develop block-based themes, or are just curious about how other developers are building them, this podcast is for you.
Array Themes on Themeforest
WordPressers Twitter list mentioned by Mike