WordPress Themes Team Contributors Get Pushback on Proposal to Improve Block Themes’ Visibility in the Directory

Seven weeks ago, WordPress Theme Team contributors proposed several ideas for improving block themes’ visibility on WordPress.org. These included the possibility of changing the popular themes algorithm to more prominently feature block themes, and/or adding a new “Block” menu item next to Popular and Latest on the themes directory home page.

The directory is going through some growing pains as themes that are compatible with the site editor are the only ones that offer access to everything WordPress has to offer in the new paradigm of blocks. Yet, the 94 available block themes represent fewer than 1% of the directory’s 9,761 themes.

It’s an interesting time in WordPress’ history where the theme a user selects can significantly limit the ability to take advantage of WordPress’ latest features. This is why some contributors are proposing that block themes get more visibility in the directory. It directly impacts FSE adoption and consequently its improvement, as people using it is the pathway to better quality feedback that will shape its future in WordPress.

After five weeks the ticket went silent, following WordPress lead developer Dion Hulse’s recommendation that re-doing the front page of the directory would likely be the best way to solve the needs communicated in the ticket. Two weeks ago the discussion was reignited when WordPress theme developer and Themes Team contributor Dumitru Brinzan commented with strong opposition to the idea of promoting block themes:

This goes against everything that was discussed about the role of themes in the past 10 years at least.

In the past there have been a lot of instances when a new tab with themes, a different algorithm, a different order, different X, Y, Z have been appropriate.

Every single time theme authors heard the same song: it is not the role of .org to promote or market any particular product. It is not the role of .org to make the themes repo look like the plugins repo.

The logical request of removing the default Twenty themes from the Popular tab fell on deaf years.

But now there’s a new shiny toy (that is not even ready or wanted by the general public).
And suddenly people with a direct interest in having a spotlight on their themes are pushing this “new” idea.

This is a spit in the face of the hundreds (if not thousands) of theme authors that have been contributing to .org until now.

Automattic-sponsored Themes Team contributor Sarah Norris submitted a PR that adds a ‘Block’ tab to the Theme Directory filter list. It filters themes using the full-site-editing tag, which is currently buried three clicks deep for those who know how to apply the filter.

source: PR to Add Block tab to filter list

“These types of themes are more commonly referred to as block themes, so by adding this tag, we are reducing the confusion between these terms and making it clearer how to filter by block themes in the directory,” Norris said.

Hulse concluded that the PR was “the most straight forward way forward here, making the most impact today,” but questioned whether “block” is the best term to use.

Christian Zumbrunnen, another participant in the discussion, suggested classic themes get a label as well, such as “Classic,” which could be changed to “Deprecated” sometime in the future.

“And another question: why would my non-FSE themes built for the Block Editor be relegated to the ‘classic themes’ category?” Brinzan said. “Why give priority specifically to FSE themes, all the while calling them ‘block’ themes? My classic themes work perfectly well with blocks. Why create any more confusion under the false pretense of making things ‘easier and clearer?’”

The difference here is that while most themes now support the block editor for content, very few include full support for the block-based site editor. Brinzan contends that contributors should work towards creating a more efficient search and improving the browsing/filtering experience for themes:

The whole directory needs to be improved. It’s not right (or fair) to prioritize one type of themes, when many of them aren’t even production-ready.
Funneling all WordPress users towards an unfinished and clunky product won’t do anyone any good. WordPress is not known for its elegant UI, and this will make things worse. WordPress users are not guinea pigs to force Gutenberg and FSE on them at every step. Let this process take its natural course.

WordPress theme developers are facing the inevitable task of updating their themes to be FSE-enabled in order to remain relevant in the new era of using blocks to edit all aspects of a WordPress site. Themes that don’t support the full range of the platform’s features do not have long before they become the last vestiges of a bygone era of WordPress themes.

Hendrik Luehrsen, who agreed that full-site editing themes should be easier to find, said he is concerned about how to do that without “without downgrading the rest of the themes or without creating an Osborne Effect.” This notion, which is based on the downfall of the Osborne Computer Corporation, particularly affects consumer electronic products where prematurely announcing the imminent release of a technologically superior product can damage the sales of existing products.

The Osborne Effect may not be applicable in this case, since WordPress has already shipped FSE to those who want to take advantage of it, and block themes, the successor of legacy WordPress themes, are already here.

Automattic-sponsored Themes Team contributor Jeffrey Pearce urged contributors to reach a consensus and reminded them that the solution can always be iterated on later.

“It’s important to highlight that block themes can only get better with improved exposure by usage, which seems to be what most folks in here agree on,” Pearce said. “The solutions in this ticket don’t seek to demote classic themes, but rather they seek to improve the discoverability of Block Themes instead of the current filter approach.”

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31 responses to “WordPress Themes Team Contributors Get Pushback on Proposal to Improve Block Themes’ Visibility in the Directory”

  1. I have an idea. How about a Go Fund Me type thing where funds are raised for the Best FSE theme. Best having a few prizes, like, most popular, highest rated, and best premium theme, best free theme, and whatever experts like y’all think. If enough money is raised, then a contest for Best Block, free and paid, also! All contributions over $50 get the best premium theme? or something cool.

  2. “WordPress theme developers are facing the inevitable task of updating their themes to be FSE-enabled in order to remain relevant in the new era of using blocks to edit all aspects of a WordPress site. Themes that don’t support the full range of the platform’s features do not have long before they become the last vestiges of a bygone era of WordPress themes.”

    I’ve worked with hundreds of clients and not once has someone requested the ability to be able to endlessly rework their site. They don’t care about FSE or remaining “relevant” or “features”. All they ever want is something affordable, something that will enhance their business, and something that won’t be an endless money-pit. FSE currently addresses none of these things in a meaningful way and has only served to increase development and maintenance costs. I strongly believe a pre-5.0 WordPress site remains more future-proof than what has come after.

  3. Theme authors have held an outwardly influential position within the WordPress extension community for a long time, likely because the theme directory is such a popular entry point for authors looking to capitalize on .org’s reach for premium upsells. Because those business interests are always simmering under the surface, it seems to naturally bubble up into vitriol anytime changes to the model are proposed that threaten that influence.

    One quote in your story particularly stood out for me because it’s so completely off base as to be almost laughable:

    WordPress users are not guinea pigs to force Gutenberg and FSE on them at every step. Let this process take its natural course.

    WordPress users are absolutely guinea pigs and this process “taking its natural course” will likely not happen in a way that particular contributor might expect. The best ideas in a meritocracy – even a Matt-ocracy – win. And FSE has already been granted “good-idea” status by being shipped in WordPress core. It’s a little late to be unringing that bell.

    My broader point is that there are plenty of examples of features WordPress has introduced that had to be forced into view, this is one of those things. This thing running its “natural course” will be WordPress forcing it into view so it gets greater exposure and adoption.

    • Because the end customers don’t want anything new. They don’t know the difference between FSE and block or classic.

      This is top down reasoning. The developers and designers that are making these themes want people to want block themes.

      It’s just like someone who’s really familiar with Joomla always recommends Joomla to their clients because it’s what they are familiar with and like.

      Same with web developers that use WordPress. We think WordPress is better than Joomla and recommend WordPress.

      The builders of FSE things think they are the best thing since sliced bread and they want everybody to adopt it because they like it.

      My customers don’t know the difference. Requests like this don’t come from end customers.

      So why force a change? I’ve been building on WordPress since there was a WordPress.

      I built my first website in 1996 and several over the years before WordPress.

      WordPress wasn’t forced on me. I used it because it made creating websites easier.

      It’s the same with forcing FSE themes on everybody. If it truly is easier and better let people adopt it on their own.

  4. I would like to highlight one of Brinzan’s comments in the Trac, with which I agree:

    “Address the whole issue instead: improve the directory, better theme tags and search, implement the things that we have been waiting for 10+ years.
    Multiple screenshots, descriptions with markup, better readmes, links to documentation and maybe even custom demos.
    With all these in place, both classic and FSE themes will have all the necessary tools to attract their target audience.
    If this many Automattic employees (with 0 themes in the repo) are so worried about the state of the themes repo, then maybe a few resources could be allocated to improving the whole system.”

    Spot on.

  5. I kinda understand all point and their validity in this discussion. Still, adjusting the algorithm for the needs of these FSE developers feels wrong.
    If your product can’t stand on its own, maybe your business decision lacks. Yes, things are changing in the WordPress ecosystem. I just wonder how willing devs are to the increasingly painful developement of WP. There’s the possibility to alienate a whole number of people – devs and users alike.
    This change makes me fear for the future of WordPress. Simplicity is a key themes provided. FSE is obstructing that more and more.
    Feels a little bit like the golden calf that is worshipped. I’m a experienced PHP dev and love classic themes. And while I am eager to learn, the whole block ecosystem feels very confusing to me right now.

  6. Sarah , well written , a bit of ‘fire’ in the discussion , but needed to be said. Greg

  7. I don’t get the opposition as this is not some minor new feature a them supports or not (like having customizer options or not). This is a major shift and completely different approach to themes, and “promoting” (if one can even call it that) of Block-Theme seems a total valid option. It is rather only a filter then a promotion in my opinion. If one wants to use WordPress 6.0 and beyond with FSE, one would need to find the appropriate themes easily. That is it. Nothing more or less.

    • Are you fully aware that the corollary to your statement is that it is your way or the highway: long-time users of WP should simply go away?

  8. I use both classic and FSE-based themes to run my websites. Hopefully, I will fully embrace FSE themes when they come of age. For now, FSE is still very much in its infancy and must be given time to mature. As for the theme directory, the menu should remain as is, and users should only select what they need through the Feature Filter menu item.

  9. Okay. This was a great breakdown. I see both sides of the coin here. But with FSE and Block Themes being the future direction of WordPress, they have to have their own section / highlighted discoverability in the theme directory.

    That’s the only way to increase mass adoption and speed up future iterations of block themes and FSE.

    It will instinctually drive the “every day” person to embrace the new developments at WP.

    I hear the concerns of the theme developers. I do.

    But if you zoom out and look at the greater good for WP, you have to give blocks and FSE a little push above the rest.

    • I am in complete agreement with you, Alex.

      There needs to be some consideration for / discussion around the reality that block-based building and FSE are not necessarily the same. For example, a block theme can be used without leveraging the FSE components (rebuilding templates, for instance, in the site editor.)

  10. So it seems that the logical labels should be “classic, classic/block, and block” or possibly “classic, classic/block, and FSE”.
    That would make it easy to understand the capabilities/features of specific themes. I am currently using classic/block themes, on the most recent site not using classic editor at all, but the theme is a (relatively) newer classic theme (Chaplin, 2021) built to be block-friendly but still supporting a forum. I tried setting up the site with a FSE theme and found it still too confusing; also, it seems that FSE and fora don’t mix well.

    • All my clients want to do is pick a theme that has the look and feel that they want. They don’t care about any of the labels you mentioned.

      The only reason there should be any push at all is if there’s some kind of deadline looming that’s going to make all themes obsolete except for these new FSE themes.

      Right now, I’m not going to tell my customers that they only have 90 something themes to choose from.

      Maybe WordPress needs to fork. Classic WordPress and Block WordPress or something like that.

      I know that might be a coding nightmare for the developers of wordpress. But making me learn a new way of building WordPress sites after doing it for almost 20 years is also a nightmare.

      • There is already a fork of classic WordPress called ClassicPress. It’s a fork of WP 4.9.

  11. You left out an important question from the ticket: why do we need many themes for FSE when the whole point is that the user can easily make whatever they want with it?
    And by extension, isn’t that the death of the theme business?

    • Actually, one did not really need many themes in the before times. I almost always grabbed a 20xx theme that had the approximate shape I was looking for and then went to town with CSS and maybe a little PHP.

  12. When Matt feels comfortable to retire wp.com’s entire ‘classic’ theme fleet because WordPress professionals want to label them Deprecated, and forces his users to design the front-end with blocks, I think we might have this discussion on a reasonable level.

  13. Thank you for so much attention to my comments, though I would like to highlight the fact that Joy had a more concise and to the point comment way before me.

    In a nutshell, If FSE themes are that great, allow theme developers to promote these themes with whatever tools they have: articles, tutorials, videos, etc. If users will love these amazing themes that are the future of WordPress, then the popularity of these themes will grow exponentially, right? We will see FSE themes with hundreds of thousands of users and the death of Divi/Elementor will be in sight.

    Having said that, I have yet to see a FSE theme that casual users are hyped about. I have yet to see non-devs praising a FSE theme for being intuitive and easy to use.

    As always, a dozen developers decide what millions of casual WordPress users need and want, without any real data to back up that assumption.

  14. The reality is that it is hard to find block themes. I’ve been asked at least a couple dozen times by various users (and readers while I was writing here for the Tavern) in the last several months where to find block themes other than Twenty Twenty-Two. Based on discussions with others on different Make teams, this seems to be a common issue.

    The push to add a link to a separate page is about solving that easily-solvable problem. And, it’s possible to do that in a way that adds context for users who happen to stumble upon that page (e.g., explain how these themes are different).

    Are there other problems that need solving? Absolutely, but those should not be blockers for addressing an issue that could be solved inside of a day.

  15. Maybe someday I’ll learn to appreciate blocks. I don’t see their advantage. In my practical experience they just slow me down with a new (and unnecessary) learning curve where the ” classic” methods aren’t broken. There’s a reason the Classic Editor and Classic Widgets plugins are at the top of the new plug-ins page: they’re popular. When we’re busy and want to make a quick edit it’s annoying to have to learn a new interface because the site updated. By all means make block themes easier to find (or avoid). I also agree about removing the default themes from the “Popular” category.

  16. As a “regular user” (as opposed to developer) I would like to add the following:
    1. the theme directory is in urgent need of an overhaul anyway. For a layperson it’s more than difficult to find a perfectly matching theme if you have a clear list of required features.
    2. the discussion about pros and cons of Gutenberg, FSE, and blocks in general won’t die any time soon. I would almost pledge for 2 completely different strands of WordPress: the classic version and WordPress FSE. But I fear that train has long left the station…

  17. 5million + users have the Classic Editor plugin installed on their website.

    If the ultimate goal at the end of the day for WordPress is to be the easiest way to get a website up and running, Maybe the dev team can pay attention to what users are actually doing instead of trying to push things in a direction they want.

    The reason the Classic Editor is still so damn popular is that the interface is one they can understand. It works much like most word processor programs and most email programs… It feels like what they already do every day.

    While I do like a lot of the flexibility of blocks, that is not at all familiar for most users. Because I am a developer, the flexibility appeals to me. However, as a developer, I don’t build the websites for myself, but instead for my clients.

    So… Rather than make it all confusing for them, I build a solid theme that does what they need, and drop in the Classic Editor so they can manage most things themselves.

    WordPress is starting to get a little too Applish. Apple forces change, and WP is trying to do the same. The biggest difference… Average everyday people spend a ton of money on Apple products because they make their life easier. WordPress is getting too complicated for the average everyday user, so trying to force them into a specific future that they don’t want will only force them to a different platform.

    Just my thoughts on this.

    • The difference between WP & Apple is that Apple almost always gets it right. They typically invest lots of time into testing alternative designs and listening to users.

      Proposed deprecation of what made WP great will not help the situation. I’m hearing again and again from organizations about their interest in WIX. They tell me that it is easy to use. I used to counter that WP is easy to use plus has many other benefits.

      Now WP is a hard sell. I must tell them it can be easy to use if they add plugins to disable the block editor. That usually ends the discussion.

      The latest stats show WIX market share increasing. Meanwhile WP’s growth stalled and is now declining. Will that turn around as the blockheads make WP harder to use and seek to bury its good original parts? Don’t kid yourself.

      (If the moderator again kills my comment it will just prove my point.)

  18. Block themes and traditional themes are seen exactly the same to the end-user, just another WordPress theme. Why not leverage its modularity by creating a template file directory while allowing users to mix and match their favorite template pieces?

    FSE development is confusing, even for experienced WordPress developers. Allowing developers to take things piecemeal instead of creating an entire theme would drastically lower barrier of entry.

  19. Assuming developers are a valid target audience of the theme directory, and often they pick a theme based on technical criteria and client requirements, then it helps highlight all types of themes by making it easier to filter out incompatible ones.

    As long as those who don’t need it can simply ignore them without detriment

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