Rant On WordPress Photography Themes Raises Concerns For Consumers

Peter Adams who runs the site WP Photog has published a rant against Photography based WordPress themes that is filled with interesting things to consider, especially for consumers. The rant covers a lot of familiar territory such as themes using Custom Post Types instead of built-in functionality, using plugins for functionality instead of building it into the theme and finally, bypassing the gallery shortcode generated by the core of WordPress.

There are a lot of reasons that these photography oriented Themes are so messed up. I could point to the fact that many Theme designers are web designers and not software engineers or to the fact that the incentive of premium theme designers is to lure buyers in with a good demo and not low long-term ownership costs. Or maybe it’s just ignorance on the part of Theme designers as to how WordPress really works and what the trade-offs really are.

However, what I think is really going on here is that many of the proprietary workarounds found in these themes are trying to make up for the usability issues that new users face when starting out with WordPress

Keep In Simple Stupid Featured Image

Peter says something in his post that I wish all theme designers/developers would get back to doing. “Keep Theme code dedicated to design and layout – not proprietary functionality. Many of the complaints against Photography specific themes are similar to the complaints Justin Tadlock mentioned in his ThemeForest experiment.

From a consumer standpoint, Justin’s experiment proves how important it is to pick the right theme that won’t lock you in. I can’t imagine the common user knowing about shortcodes, post types, etc and factoring those into their decision on which theme to buy. As has been the case for a long time, choosing themes is like walking down the street looking at each storefront window to see which one looks best. Between all these dependencies with shortcodes, etc. someone could really screw themselves by investing time and money into a theme that does everything wrong.

I feel like WordPress themes have gone through a giant cycle. A few years ago, themes contained awesome features that manipulated the display of content. Features that could have existed as plugins but were built into themes. Now we’re on the other side of the cycle where there is demand for theme developers to get rid of all the extra fat found within themes and to get back to the basics of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). While progressing through the cycle the WordPress theme ecosystem has become filled with themes that make a consumers life a living nightmare.

Theme Review Guidelines

Justin Tadlock is doing his part to change things for the better. He joined the WordPress Theme Review team and is working with other members of the community to help straighten things out. But themes hosted on WordPress.org are just a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the commercial theme market, which doesn’t always follow the same theme guidelines. The WordPress theme world has dug themselves a deep hole that they might not be able to get out of. The unfortunate aspect in all of this is that consumers are the ones who lose the most.

10 Comments


  1. Hi Jeffro
    Those shortcodes can be a nightmare when you change themes.

    I changed theme frameworks recently for a small site and spent most of my time sorting out the shortcodes.
    I think at the time I found a post by Justin T about locking yourself into a theme / theme framework by using shortcodes and I left a comment saying that I agreed 100%!

    I use the Genesis framework on all my sites and they work hard at not duplicating WordPress core functions or tasks that are better suited to plugins.
    Can be really frustrating when I have to play with non Genesis themes.

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  2. It’s a real problem in the premium WordPress theme marketplace — a problem I also see throughout the web development market for small businesses. In my client work, I’ve come across so many clients unknowingly paying for things they shouldn’t, locked into their old design firms through poor technology choices, and sometimes forced to buy back control of their own websites when they want to move.

    Poorly developed WordPress themes are the equivalent of this for the small business do-it-yourself-er. The premium themes marketplace needs a good technical review platform that can provide insight on these issues for consumers who are unable to evaluate a theme properly themselves. ThemeForest has implemented new technical requirements that are a step forward, but it’s clear their review process is still all about design — themes with terrible performance issues are still slipping through if they look flashy enough. One of the unfortunate pressures of the marketplace, I suppose, when that’s what buyers demand.

    I think initiatives like ThemeFriendly.com by Alex Mansfield could be a good step forward. But a real review of overall performance, lock-in, etc, is time intensive. I’m not sure how even a small fraction of all the themes out there could come under that kind of review.

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  3. I think it would be best to remove all custom functionality into the realm of plugins. I believe this is what they are for, additional functionality. Adding what would best be suited for a plugin directly to a theme could cause bloat and more importantly confusion on behalf of the user.

    Years ago I used to use a framework I built myself, which had a bunch of bells and whistles. Initially I thought this was cool and so did a lot of my clients. But, with WordPress constantly changing, these “bells and whistles” turned into headache and heartburn. This is why I have now moved towards building according to the WordPress Theme Standards. If a clients wants a particular piece of functionality, I now highly recommend using a plugin. Life is easier.

    If everyone who developed themes followed “KISS”, I believe that a vast majority of themes, both free and commercial would be in a better state. And I agree with Sarah, the hole that has been dug is pretty darn deep.

    If i remember correctly, a few years ago everyone was screaming “Separate content from presentation”. Now it seems we need to gravitate towards “Separate presentation from functionality”.

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    1. +1 to this, i maybe biased because i am developing plugins, but i do think that all business logic including shortcodes should be managed by plugins,

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  4. I totally agree, buying themes is a crap shoot (mostly crap). But there unstated problem with the standards based themes is they are BORING. It sounds so wonderful that you could change themes easily, but in my experience changing a theme is the last thing you want to do – you do it if you are forced to with a gun to your head! I publish a thousand wordpress sites, and I am standardized on about 20 themes that seem to work (fingers crossed).

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    1. Hey mcguinnesspublishingadmin – what are the 20 themes you rely on?

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  5. Yes many themes are crap but….

    Changing theme is not trivial because wodpress core doesn’t support it. There is no much point to complain about the quality of themes code when core doesn’t provide yet any way to migrate content like widgets and menus between themes,and doesn’t provide the ability to costumize them for the new theme before making the switch.

    And galleries…. Have anyone ever tried to search a specific gallery? The truth is galleries should be a CPT in core. The rule of thumb is – If 75% of themes do it, then it should be in core, this is how we came to have post formats (ok, I am a little sarcastic).

    The idea of moving functionality to plugins doesn’t make much sense
    1. If the plugin is maintained by someone else you have no control to stop an update from introducing breaking changes to the theme.
    2. If the theme author maintains the plugin then he is unlikely to test it against other themes and therefor the compatability is questionable.

    The problem here is not with theme authors (even tough 95% of them can’t write semi decent php, css or js), it lies with site owners that expect they will be able to make a major design change to their site in 5 minutes.

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    1. I think Mark is on the right track here. Yes, as many have said in the past, building “Plugin Features” as part of “Theme Design” can look attractive to the young theme shopper, and then turn into a migration nightmare when those features aren’t supported by your next theme. As you say, it’s killing the ecosystem and the users are the losers. We’ve already got PLENTY of proprietary platforms where that’s true, it’s a shame to have an Open Source beacon like WordPress fall to this as well. The whole point of CSS and Themes is that we’ve created power in separating the Content and Form which were in a single Web1.0 doc. If we don’t honor that, where are we?

      However, as Mark suggests, I think we’re not going to get theme designers to stop making problematic themes. And I think we can educate some site developers, but educating every possible user isn’t realistic either. Given that I don’t see how we can ever educate all the users nor motivate all the designers, like it or not, that means that it kind of falls to Core to solve the problem that others have created. There could be further plugins or pay services to get users out of the mess they didn’t know they were getting into, but it’d be great if WordPress itself had a means of addressing unintended messes.

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  6. I purchase commercial themes to build websites for my clients but I have to rely on plug-ins to achieve what the customer wants within a particular website. I feel the functionality of themes and plugins go hand in hand. Any one theme will NOT offer the designer 100% of what he needs to build his/her site and that is where plug ins come in handy. Personally I hate relying on custom CSS coding to change the most simple of things and I wish commercial themes would offer MORE options to change the layout of my design…. I am hoping this comes in time.

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  7. There is a lot to be said for functionality and long term compatibility, I have seen several sites that are tied into wp 2. because issues with custom coding tied into the design. Sure designers like to show off skills with the latest and greatest, but with out much thought as to the future the site, the owner is left holding what could be a broken site.

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