Stargazer: A Free Design-Specific Parent Theme for WordPress

Justin Tadlock, creator of Theme Hybrid, released his new Stargazer parent theme to the public today. Stargazer is what Tadlock calls a “design-specific parent theme.” It’s based on the latest, not-yet-released version 2.0 of the Hybrid Core framework.


Like many other WordPress parent themes, Stargazer houses all the functionality and the markup. However, the unusual thing about the theme is that it also contains the majority of the design. This unique relationship between parent and child themes is what sets Stargazer apart.

Perhaps it’s easier to understand Stargazer by what it’s not. Tadlock explains his intentions:

It is not meant as a base theme that you build intricate designs on top of. You wouldn’t want to make a restaurant or [insert specific niche] child theme. You wouldn’t use it as a starter for all your client projects unless all your clients had the specific needs that this theme addresses.

This theme won’t meet every user’s needs. It’s not supposed to.

You might be wondering, as I was at first: What’s the point of a design-specific parent theme? Most WordPress theme developers are used to super generic parent themes that are meant to be all-encompassing themes, suited for customizing to any specification via a child theme. However, Stargazer is meant to be just the opposite. It was created to provide limitations.

The purpose is that you’ll have a limited design window where you can make changes. Think of this theme as a beautifully-crafted box. It does everything a box of its size needs to do. It holds various things for various people (user content). However, some people want a blue box rather than a red box. That’s where child themes come in. Child themes can paint the box whatever color they want. However, they can’t change the purpose of the box.

The Stargazer Parent Theme Experiment

When Tadlock announced the Stargazer beta, he invited developers and designers to test out his new theme. He was surprised by how much interest it generated, because the concept is diametrically opposed to the complex WordPress themes that permeate the market today.

With Stargazer, Tadlock is aiming to keep the barrier for entry low so that DIY users/future theme developers are encouraged to experiment. All of the complex aspects of the theme are kept out of site in sub-folders of the parent theme. You don’t have to know a ton of PHP code to get started. Tadlock says that he hopes Stargazer child themes will provide a launching point for potential theme developers to learn the basics:

By creating complex code in our themes, we’re alienating those DIY users who like to tinker with code. DIY users are potential theme authors. If we make it hard to learn how themes work, we’re doing a disservice to the community.

When you create a child theme for Stargazer, the idea is to focus on colors, typography and images. A Stargazer child theme takes you straight to the “Fun Zone” of design, because you don’t have to bother with widths and margins and heavy markup. Child themes for Stargazer should focus on:

  • Custom Background
  • Custom Header
  • Custom Primary Color

The challenge is to play within the constraints of the parent theme to create a totally unique child theme. Though Stargazer may seem like a rather limited theme upon first glance, if you look under the hood, you’ll find four different layout options built into the customizer, complete integration with microdata, support for post formats, post layouts, threaded comments and seamless integration with other Theme Hybrid extensions.

My Impressions of the Stargazer Theme

When Justin announced the Stargazer beta, I was intrigued and decided to join in to check out this new parent/child theme creation process. I expected to feel too constrained by the parent theme design but was surprised by what I found.

Creating a child theme for Stargazer almost feels like cheating. Stargazer does all of the heavy lifting and provides a solid backbone for a beautifully responsive theme. Basic, minimalist styles are already set for menus, dropdowns, widgets, meta and anything else that is normally a beast to style.

Although it may at first feel like you’re only permitted a small design window, working within these constraints is actually quite liberating. With a few broad strokes of the brush, you can quickly create a unique child theme with all of the layout flexibility of the parent theme.

While beta testing, I created Ex Astris, a blog-centric child theme that I’ll make available on github as soon as I tidy up the code. Putting this together took no time at all:


Tadlock estimates that most users will be able to put together child themes for Stargazer in under half an hour. There’s really not much to learn before jumping in. When creating a child theme, most of your time will be devoted to design decisions, rather than wrangling the nuts and bolts of the theme.

A New Approach to WordPress Parent/Child Themes:

Tadlock believes that this approach will provide for better parent theme upgrades. Since the child theme is limited to just the design basics, the parent theme can add in new functionality and make changes without breaking everything. This approach also offers a more consistent user experience. The child theme should work just like the parent theme, except it sports a different pair of clothes.

Stargazer is a blogging theme par excellence. It’s not going to be useful for every project and that’s okay. Tadlock plans to create more parent themes for other use cases in the future.

Now that Stargazer is out of beta, you can visit Theme Hybrid to view the demo and download it today. All plugins and themes offered at Theme Hybrid are free and open source. Have fun experimenting with this new style of parent/child themes and let us know what you think of the experience.


10 responses to “Stargazer: A Free Design-Specific Parent Theme for WordPress”

  1. First, Intrepid is a really beautiful child theme. I’m tempted to use it on my own blog. :)

    Thanks for the review. You managed to capture everything Stargazer is about. It found it tough to explain the “why” of the limitations, but you summed it nicely. I also felt that others would also feel too limited, but the only way to get past those limitations is to try your hand at designing a child theme. Once you do that, you can appreciate the system even more.

    @Chip Bennett – Exactly. I remember how awesome it was back in the Sandbox days to just have a stylesheet. You were limited by Sandbox’s structure and features, but you could use it as a canvas to make new designs. We’ve just over-complicated child themes since then. I’m hoping for a bit of a return to the good ol’ Sandbox days. We now just have a few more fun things to work with thanks to more recent WordPress theme features.

  2. Firstly, I find it incredible how you can so thoroughly grasp a brief and secondly, how you can then describe every nuance with such clarity and understanding!

    Thirdly, your Intrepid theme is stunning :)

    Personally, what I’ve learnt from using Stargazer, is to question my habitual/default need to add widgets and page templates to Child Themes which may not always be necessary. Another, is a reminder of what can be achieved by making simple changes. A Custom Header or Background with a few lines CSS can change everything.

    Stargazer really makes customizing easy and fast and as such serves as a great introduction to WordPress theme design and development.

    Again, great theme :)

  3. Thank you for the excellent write up, Sarah. …and Justin, thank you for what feels almost like a ‘new beginning’.

    We just started a WordPress Meetup in Tulsa and are kicking things off with a series on themes. There are so many questions and many of them are hard to answer without a visual. I’m looking forward to showing this to the group digging into the code with everyone.


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