Themes Team representative Ari Stathopoulos is now officially the first theme author to have a theme in the directory that supports full-site editing (FSE). With a slimmed-down beta release of FSE shipping in WordPress 5.6 this December, someone had to be the first to take the plunge. It made sense for someone intimately familiar with theme development and the directory guidelines to step up.
In many ways, it is a huge responsibility that Stathopoulos has taken on. Until one of the default Twenty* themes handles FSE, the Q theme will likely be one of the primary examples that other theme authors will follow as they begin learning how to build block-based themes.
Earlier this month, I used Q to test FSE and determine how much it had advanced. It is at least months away from being ready for use in production. The beta release in 5.6 is more or less just to get more people testing.
Stathopoulos has no plans to make Q much more than a bare-bones starter or experimental theme. It is almost a playground to see what is possible.
“Q was born out of necessity,” he said. “I couldn’t work on full-site editing or global styles without having a base theme for them, so for a while, I had it in a GitHub repository. I decided to release it to the WordPress.org repository because I think I might not be the only one with those issues. Downloading a theme in the dashboard is easier than cloning a repository for most people.”
Existing block-based themes are few and far between. Automattic and some of its employees have some experimental projects, but none of those are in the official directory for anyone to test. Stathopoulos wanted a base theme that was unopinionated in terms of design that would allow him to work on FSE, test pull requests, and experiment with various ideas.
“It has some ideas for things that ultimately I’d like to see implemented in FSE, and it’s a playground,” he said. “For example, the addition of a skip-link for accessibility in the theme, an implementation for responsive/adaptive typography, and conditional loading of block styles only when they are used/needed. These are things that I hope will be part of WordPress Core at some point, and the Q theme explores ideas on how to implement them.”
He began work on the theme over a year ago and continues working on it as a side project. He said Yoast, his employer, fully supports the idea of creating things that are beneficial for other theme designers and WordPress core.
Developing an FSE-Capable Theme
End-users must install the Gutenberg plugin and activate the experimental FSE feature to use the theme or any similar theme. Currently, FSE is missing many key features that make it viable for most real-world projects. However, theme developers who plan to work with WordPress over the next several years will need to begin testing and experimenting. Q makes for a good starting point to simply get a feel for what themes will look like.
“The biggest issue was — and still is — keeping up with Gutenberg development,” said Stathopoulos. “Many things are currently fluid, and they happen at a very high pace. The reason I created the theme was because other themes I was testing, as part of my contribution to the Themes Team, were not properly maintained or updated. I wanted to create a starter theme that can be used as a starting point for others as well.”
One of the biggest questions still hanging in the air is what the timeline will look like for publicly-available, block-based themes. Will 2021 be the year they take over? That is unlikely given the feature’s current state. However, there will be a point where developers are no longer building classic or traditional themes.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more FSE themes in 2021,” said Stathopoulos. “It might take a couple of years before they become the standard, but after the release of WordPress 5.6, I hope there will be a lot more development and focus on FSE and global styles. Whether we see more FSE themes or not depends on when some things get merged in WordPress core.”
He pointed out some critical missing features from Gutenberg at the moment. The big one is that the Query block, which is the block that displays posts on the front end, does not inherit its options from the global query. Essentially, this means that, regardless of what URL a visitor is on, it displays the latest posts.
“Once these things are addressed, and blockers for theme builders get resolved, I expect we’ll see an explosion of good FSE themes being built,” he said.
Stathopoulos is most excited about the prospect of seeing more design standards come to core. Currently, there is no consistency between themes. Theme authors can use any markup they want. Switching themes affects a site’s structure, SEO, accessibility, speed, and many other things.
“My advice to theme developers who want to start tinkering would be to start with something simple,” he said. “It’s tempting to add extremely opinionated styles, for buttons for example, but more and more things get added every day to the editor like a border-radius setting for buttons. Theme authors should avoid the trap of designing an FSE theme having in mind what the editor currently does. Instead, theme authors should strive to build something having in mind a vision of what the editor will eventually become.”
The Future of Theme Reviews
Because Stathopoulos is a representative of the Themes Team, he also has some insight into the shift in the coming years for guidelines and what steps authors might need to take. While it is too early for the team to begin making decisions, its members are already thinking about forthcoming changes.
“Change is always difficult, especially when it’s for something this big,” said Stathopoulos. “It will be a bumpy ride, and it will take time. WordPress theming is a huge industry. For a while, ‘classic’ (for lack of a better word) themes will continue to be a viable solution for theme developers who didn’t have time to catch up. But not forever.”
Some may look back at previous major shifts and worry about what the future theme directory guidelines may ask. In 2015, the team required all theme options to use the customizer. This was after a three-year wait for theme authors to organically make the switch. Given that FSE will be a much larger departure from norms and dislike of the Gutenberg project from segments of the development community, it could be a rough transition.
“At some point, FSE themes will become the industry standard and what the users want,” said Stathopoulos. “Personally, I hope no one will want to upload a classic theme in the w.org repository in 2025 when the industry has moved on. It would be like uploading today a theme that is using tables and iframes for layouts.”
He said that sufficient time would be given for the eventual transition. However, the team will likely prioritize FSE-based themes. They are cognizant of how much of a shift this will be and will plan accordingly when the time comes.