Rebirth of Creativity: Gutenberg and the Future of WordPress Themes

I began using WordPress in 2005. I’d already been learning HTML and CSS for a couple of years. I even had a home-brewed blog that pulled posts from plain text files at one point. I knew enough JavaScript to do pop-up alerts and other annoying things that served no purpose and made for a poor user experience, even if they were fun for me.

This was my second attempt at using WordPress. This time it was after a botched go of making PHP Nuke behave how I wanted. I had big dreams for my website but lacked the coding skills to make them happen. WordPress was simple enough to hack for a novice like me at the time. Sure, I broke my site more times than I could count, but I managed to put together my first real theme.

I popped open Photoshop; grabbed a few images from Angel, my favorite TV show at the time; and began my work. I’d recently watched Soul Purpose, an episode that explored whether the titular character was truly the hero mentioned in an ancient prophecy. It was foretold that the vampire with a soul would shed his demon half and live as a human. It explored themes of the character’s place in the world. At 21 years old, it’s the sort of episode that resonated with a young man who was also looking for his place. I thought it fitting to work that into my theme’s design and began hacking away at a header for my theme.

A screenshot of the header for my first WordPress theme for my personal blog.
Screenshot of my first WordPress theme header.

At that time, there was this loosely-connected underground of themers and hobbyists who were building WordPress themes based on their favorite TV series, movies, comic books, and more. That was my first real introduction to WordPress. These people were not building themes for profit. They were searching for their place in this small corner of the internet. At most, some were looking for validation from like-minded people who might enjoy their art. It was about creation for the sake of creation. Anyone could be an artist with a simple lesson in CSS, an image manipulation program, and enough grit to pour their soul into the project for a few hours.

If there were ever a time that WordPress themes died, it was when the hobbyists who built for pure passion were overshadowed by business interests.

Don’t get me wrong; business interests played a crucial role in propelling WordPress to become the most dominant CMS in the world. However, the balance has clearly shifted in favor of building WordPress themes for business and ecommerce rather than for the enthusiasts who just want to create. Other platforms have better catered to these users and filled in the gaps left open by WordPress. Tumblr became a safe-haven for popular culture fans. DeviantArt a home for artists. Wattpad for aspiring writers and fanfic lovers.

Somewhere along the way, we lost the innocence and artistry of building WordPress themes for the pure fun of it. WordPress grew up and WordPress themes along with it.

Today’s Themes Are Not Tomorrow’s

In his post, The End of WordPress Themes is in Sight, Ben Gillbanks said, “Themes as we know them will no longer be made.” It is a bleak look at the future of WordPress theming. He notes that he doesn’t believe that he’ll be able to make a living building WordPress themes in the next couple of years.

His worries are warranted. They have been shared by several theme authors over the past couple of years as the block editor (Gutenberg) was making its way into core WordPress. The official theme review team has discussed the team’s future role surrounding the coming changes.

Gillbanks’ post comes on the heels of a post written by Matias Ventura on defining content block areas. Essentially, the idea is for WordPress to allow users to edit areas outside of the post content via the block editor. Anything from the header, footer, sidebar, or otherwise would likely be fair game.

In such a system, themes would be relegated to defining block areas, providing base styles, and designing block output. In many ways, this is what WordPress themes should be. Some might say that WordPress is putting themes back into their proper place of simply styling content. With the behemoth themes with hundreds or thousands of features we’ve seen over the past few years, this could be a welcome change.

There’s huge potential for designers to step up and make their mark. I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing CSS artists unleashed in the WordPress theme ecosystem.

Gillbanks went on to say:

There are definite benefits to doing this from a user’s perspective – they will have full control of their site – but it’s going to result in some very boring website layouts.

This is the point where I’ll respectfully disagree. Putting control in the hands of non-designers will be anything but boring.

Do we all so easily forget the days of GeoCities? The websites built from it may have been horribly inaccessible. They may have blared midi files as soon as you opened a webpage. They may have even had a flashing, scrolling marquee zipping across the header. Boring is not the word I’d use to describe them.

As much as many of us want to put those days behind us (Come on, you had one of those sites at one point, right? Tell the truth.), there was something fascinating about it all. Real people built these sites because they were fun. The sites told you something about that person. It was a deeply personal look into this stranger’s world. Sometimes it was just a bunch of junk spewed onto the screen, but most sites were a reflection of the site owners at that point in time.

It was ugly and beautiful all the same.

Web developers and designers joke about those dark days of the web. It’s easy to look back at sites from the ’90s and cringe at the silliness (It makes you wonder what designers of 2050 will think about today’s designs, doesn’t it?). I choose to look fondly upon those days. It was a time before I became a “designer” with rules to follow.

But, here’s the important point. We are not the arbiters of the web. It’s all about the user. If someone wants a blinking Justin Bieber GIF in their site header, more power to them. It’s the developer’s job to enable the user to do this in an easy-to-configure way.

Wait? So Geocities is your argument for full-site editing in WordPress?

Understanding why WordPress should become a full-site editor means understanding the average user. Developers are more apt to view things in a structured manner. I spent over a decade honing my development skills. Logic and order are old friends.

With end-users, things may seem a bit more chaotic. A teenager might want to plaster a picture of her favorite band anywhere she wants on her site. A soccer mom might want to show her kid slamming home the winning goal. A poet may want to showcase one of his poems as a background image on his blog. Humans are creative beings. While our unique brand of artistry might not appeal to others, it’s still something we crave to share.

It’s also important to understand that building WordPress themes is nowhere near as simple in 2019 as it was in 2005 when I started hacking away. The code is much more complex. It’s not quite as easy for a new user to piece together something fun as it once was. Unless you have a theme or plugin that allows you to do this with simple drag-and-drop or similar tools, users have little control over their own sites. And, that’s why the Gutenberg project is so revolutionary. Its mission is to put the power back in the hands of the people.

Theme authors need to evolve. They will need to find a way to balance good design principles with the insane amount of freedom users will have. There’s nothing stopping designers from making sure the Bieber screengrab looks more presentable.

Are WordPress Themes Dead?

No. But, the theme landscape will certainly change and not for the first time. We need not look at that as a bad thing.

Those hobbyists who like to tinker with their site, they will once again have power that was so long ago lost to more advanced code.

There will also be sub-communities within the WordPress landscape. Some people will want something more akin to classic WordPress. Others will want a simple blog handled with Markdown (side note: I’m one of those people, and Gutenberg actually handles pasting from Markdown well). Plugins will be built to cater to every user’s needs. Themes will exist for different types of users. Client builds and enterprise solutions that look nothing like core WordPress aren’t going anywhere.

There’s still a long road ahead. Theme authors need to be more involved with the development of Gutenberg as these features make their way into the plugin and eventually into WordPress. Otherwise, they’ll risk losing the opportunity to help shape the future theme landscape.

Truth be told, I’m not sure what themes will look like in a few years. I have a horrible track record with predictions. However, I think it’s safe to say that there’ll be a place for designers.

I’m excited because I feel like it will bring back the potential for users to have the control they once had and more.


33 responses to “Rebirth of Creativity: Gutenberg and the Future of WordPress Themes”

  1. Thank you for the article.
    Let’s be honest. Since Gutenberg we have to know not only PHP commands, but the whole infrastructure of WP. This also requires that you have to deal with each release currently.
    In addition, not everything has been changed to Gutenberg and you have to be careful about starting big projects with it. The faster the other phases are implemented, the faster you can start new projects. I’m currently using the blocks and I’m thrilled. A big added value for my customers.

    Stay tuned and go ahead.

  2. Ah the reminiscing of the old days of design. I started with HTML, then CSS became more infused in design (I was like…this is hard). Then I got into Serendipity, Movable Type (god I miss that!!!!), Joomla, WordPress, and now adding ClassicPress to the array.

    As for the future of WordPress themes, it’s obvious that themes are going the way of the dinosaurs for something else to take over. Getting into theme development is not something someone should do now. I’m skeptical of the direction the new theme concept is going, but for many, adapting is going to be critical.

    Just a couple of things that I yet to see talked about:

    1. What is going to happen with the major theme shops and especially the marketplaces, such as Theme Forest?

    2. The other thing, what is going to happen to WordPress child themes? My guess the child theme is history.

    For myself, I planning to focus on designing primarily for ClassicPress (and WordPress for the time being). I’m also going to change my theme site back to Joomla, because where I see WP going, this is not ideal for a site such as mine to operate on (even more so with the plans I have for it down-the-road).

    I will still be part of the WP community in one form or another. The trick is to adapt gradually and try to determine what the future is. Unfortunately, one might need a crystal ball for that, but I will take it slow and watch how things progress over the next year or so.

  3. This is fantastic perspective on a topic (obviously) near and dear to my heart. I read Ben’s article the other day, and my gut reaction was to panic. Then I thought, “No worries, we sold StudioPress to WP Engine and it’s not my responsibility anymore.” It’s a good thing, because they have gone above and beyond what we were doing (and could have done moving forward) and have evolved as the technology has.

    I consider myself a designer way more than I do a developer, which explains why I handled the front-end (child themes) of Genesis, and Nathan handled the back-end of Genesis. This is a season that I sincerely look forward to.

    I concur that the theme landscape is on the verge of changing drastically, and as an advocate of minimalism and simplifying, I am looking forward to being a part of—dare I say it—another WordPress revolution.

  4. Great article Justin. It got me reminiscing about the ‘good old days’!

    I had one of those garish sites with annoying gifs everywhere. Looking back makes me cringe, but it was so much fun to build as I was learning to code.

    Really enjoying your contributions on WP Tavern.

  5. Because good always is the outcome when all people can do what professionals do. It has been great for the ad industry. It has been great for writing. It has been great for logo development. There are many more examples. It is an unpopular opinion, I know. We already have 95 percent of the net unvisited and over-populated. The main impetus for the Gutenberg migration is money and investors. Period.

  6. Justin,

    It is heart-Warming to learn of another Post Nuke converts to WordPress. It took me a while to give up on PN, mainly because of security reasons. WordPress made website construction sooo much easier for me that at the high point I had 10 sites of my own and three freebies that I ran for others. You and others can debate the virtues of themes and Gutenberg endlessly, there’s little interest to me. I’m a content person and site ease of use, content and shared maintenance are my interests. As long as user-friendly themes are readily available, I am happy to use them. Now I Blog and help maintain one other WordPress .org site. That’s enough for a retired senior.

  7. Nice Article. I think these same concerns are with the page builders as well? Once Gutenberg phase 2 completes, it’s gonna be a single app-like interface for site-building. It will make a lot of top-selling features of page builders such as Header/Footer builder actually theme builder which is assume to be the best selling point for a page builder today. I wonder where all these page builder and big theme framework will stand that time.

    • I’m thinking (gut feeling) that one can say goodbye to page builders too–at some point; possibly a goal of Matt/Automattic if WP/GB is to become a full site/page builder. So, I don’t think third party page builders are going to be immune.

  8. I’m looking forward to seeing where Gutenberg may take us… for this has been a long and winding journey…

    As a web designer, clients have come to expect richer, more complex websites. Nearly every page is becoming a landing page with complex needs.

    The old WordPress editor has been inadequate for this task for a very long time. For a while we’d put html markup right in the editor. We all know what a bad idea that was (is).

    Then we used Advanced Custom Fields and complicated PHP templates in custom themes. This worked very well, but was complex and time consuming.

    Then page builders came along and they made it fast and easy to build rich, complex layouts. But the code soup and overhead were so off-putting there was no way we could go that route.

    Then I tried to build my own page builder using ACF. This amounted to re-inventing the wheel.

    It was about this time that Pippin’s page builder review came out and I broke down, reluctantly started using, and eventually embracing Beaver Builder. For the last few years BB has allowed us to build complex websites at the speed and prices that our customers are willing to pay. I consider the page-builder overhead a solid tradeoff.

    This is a very long way of saying… If Gutenberg can one day replace what Beaver Builder can do, cleanly, easily, and with WordPress standards in place, I will happily make yet another change in our workflow.

  9. Nice article. I am the typical poet blogger, however, I love to tinker with themes and make them appear “my way”. I haven’t found a theme yet that suits all my fancies, and I pay for them.

    WordPress seems to have more interest in the business blogger than the personal blogger, which I feel is unfortunate. Personal bloggers are the bread and butter of blogging sites.

    Your article is refreshing in that it reflects on several aspects of running a blog.

    • That is something of interest, but you are right when I think about it more; WordPress has more interest in the business blogger than personal. However, it’s one of the reasons I am putting more focus on the personal blogger with themes. It would be interesting to find the ratio of the numbers of business vs personal bloggers using WP.

    • Don’t you think personal bloggers tend to use hosted solutions e.g. and others? (If they don’t have business ambitions with their personal blog)

      They don’t usually want to deal with the management that comes with self hosted

  10. Oh, the good old ways of Geocities! This article brought back so many happy memories of tinkering with HTML and just creating whatever we wanted. I had a sci-fi series fan website back then. Complete with starry sky background! Nowadays website design has become much more complicated. So much so that I have to hire someone to do it instead, so that I can concentrate on content. Don’t have enough time to do both. But it would be nice to be able to tinker around a theme a bit again :)

  11. Hey there,

    a short notice! Robert Windisch – known as the men with the Head – has predicted this since last year also we – a german WordPress Podcast “wp-sofa” – published a extra episode to this topic. Take a look for episode 49 or search for “themes werden sterben”.

    But the thing is, we talked in “WP Sofa – WordPress News #35 – KW 38/19” about a real theme tasks in the future. There are some ideas about how themes will grow.

    At last – themes will not die – themes will do only design stuff not more!

    • WordPress theme developers have not completely accepted the gutenberg.

      Sounds like the perfect time to me.

      It only closes theme opportunities if that’s how you view it. Personally, I’m much more excited about the possibility of a more unified and consistent WP experience vs. worrying about what themes have grown to be and how page builders are supposed to fit into this.

      Evolve or die.

      The nice thing about open-source is you also have the extra option to contribute. ✨

      Since the beginning I’ve been told this was the direction of Gutenberg, and I’ve been anxiously awaiting for the day that site builders can create a well-designed container with beautiful CSS for people to plug in their own content via blocks. When smartly designed, it will make for empowered WP users all-around.

      The balance will be how much control builders give their customers. Some key design considerations & trade-offs will need to be made, but can be completely customizable depending on the needs. Hence the beauty of WordPress.

  12. As always, deep post. Thank you, Justin!

    It’s a little unsettling. Probably as like everything new. I’m inspired by the new editor. And I understand that themes will now have to fulfill their design role more, than any other functions. However, I have not yet formulated a new role for myself as a theme developer. Providing new themes that include three files: styles, functions and index, and without header, navigation bar, footer. Leave it for the blocks.

    Hm… Then, perhaps, will one theme only. And I think I know its name: Tabula Rasa.

  13. Started using WordPress nearly ten years ago and just adore this CMS. When developers released Gutenberg i didn’t want to use it because i liked the good old editor. In a while, I tried Gutenberg and now can’t imagine my working process without this comfortable text editor.

  14. Great article, Justin, but I don’t share your optimism. The reason WordPress won out over PHPnuke, Joomla, Drupal and all of the other early CMSs out there is that it was a friendly tool non-technical users could pick up and use.

    Increasingly, it seems like WP respects this core group of users less and less. Gutenberg and blocks are great for many, but there are still a lot of folks who want the simplicity of the classic editor. And in the rush to monetize WP, we’re now subjected to plugin spam and nag ads in the admin. (Talk about comparisons with GeoCities!)

    Plugin developers need to consider the specter of competing with Jetpack. And while Jetpack has been great for some loyal developers, I do believe it has stifled innovation in a number of areas. Who wants to compete against a one click install and a bunch of admin nag screens?

    Even though this is all very predictable, it is a day I thought would never come because of Matt and all of the other really good folks involved with this project. But the nice thing about the Net is that it has a history of correcting mistakes like these.

    WordPress ignores its core users at its own peril.

    • Right now, people can use the ClassicEditor plugin, but this will cease to exist in the near future. At that point in time, people will have a couple of choices:

      1. Commit full-time to the Gutenberg editor
      2. Drop WordPress and change over to ClassicPress

      But what is for sure, is that themes as we know it will go through a complete change and will be merely a stylesheet, per se. However, for ClassicPress, you won’t see this happening because Gutenberg does not exist in it and themes will be what you see them as right now.

  15. I’m stoked about what the future of WordPress, and themes in particular, looks like. Gutenberg is revolutionizing WordPress in so many ways – some of which we don’t see coming, even now.

    Yes, the theme industry will change, as expected. But we have a chance here to push the envelope while it’s sailing and build a better WordPress together.

    And sure, other builders are much more complex and powerful, but Gutenberg is laying the framework for the next generation of WordPress. A generation that is much simpler and truly empowers publishers and democratizes publishing.

  16. I think Justin’s optimism is spot on. I just can’t help but be excited about what comes next. I was there in the early days of Geocities.

    And, fair disclosure, I’m not a developer, but I am an end-user of WordPress – my own client, so to speak – building and maintaining a personal expression of a pig predilection that (currently) uses my own crafted child version of Justin’s Stargazer theme.

    I firmly believe that the web will forever be awful, but wonderful, just like the humans who create it over and over again every day. I have come to suspect that there are many places on the web where sty and style might just be related. And I will continue to depend on WordPress to be my means to keep the web a little less Paris and a bit more Porkopolis.

  17. …but it’s going to result in some very boring website layouts.

    I tend to agree with Ben. Themes will be more rigid and therefore more similar. There are things I do with my themes that I can’t imagine being accomplished with block areas and blocks. But they’re not critical things and having themes return to their true role will make a nicer experience for designers and a more stable product for users.

    It will be a great day when we can say “theme designer” instead of “theme developer”, which to me is an oxymoron. Few people are truly proficient in design and development. Theming has gotten out of control.

  18. Exactly my feeling… as far as themes and website building are concerned, Gutenberg is taking the power away from developers and giving the power back to designers. A welcome change. After all, that is why page builders, in the first place, were invented. Gutenberg will do it better.

    For instance, the latest StudioPress themes now benefit from advanced Gutenberg support, and it is a radical change : layout constraints are gone, having to deal with PHP to tweak templates is now a thing of the past, included high quality css styling for blocks has become the main asset.

    Style will alway be a matter of taste, for sure, that is what freedom is all about. Essentially, we are all designers.

    As a side note, I have always disliked Facebook for taking away the freedom to style my pages according to my personality. It always gave me the feeling of being on an intranet of sorts. I believe an innovation like Gutenberg has the power to bring more people back to the open web.

  19. As a very late newcomer into the wp arena, my exploration journey of last two weeks was interesting, to say the least. My gut feeling about wp went all the way from ‘is this really the thing that powers 30% of all sites…..’ to a comfortable feeling of hope with this blogpost.
    The initial excitement of a fresh wp install with one of the latest trendy themes, quickly fades away if you realize that your first choice is also THE choice…And trying to find out, ‘where for Gods sake’ the actual html is ( generated ) to be able to make a small modification, is surprisingly complicated / unpredictable…And noticing on the way that your ‘theme’ ( this is styling , right ? ) , contains tons of php scripts, did not improve my opinion upon the overal design of wp…I would never want to make a design choice at the start that locks me in for the rest of my project. So I totally embrace the idea that ( if you want / need ) every page lives on its own and can be completely different from any other ( functionality first, then styled to perfection :) ). As if a theme ( should be a single css stylesheet, no ? ) , is an attribute of a block ( inherited from in sequence a parent block, content area, post , page , site default ). I know this reflect a simplified view and it’s not always that simple to separate functionality and styling, but we should at least try.
    Yes, I’m a developer. And I look at wp different then the ( targeted ? ) wp home user who knows little about all the technicals, and is proud to show his wife his new blog ( and he should be ) . But for sure, we should keep things under the hood, a gift for most of us no ?


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