I am writing this post on the history and current state of WordPress themes. Since I’ve been using WordPress there has been a big shift in themes and I think another one is underway. I’m looking at WordPress themes because today, as much as every before, it is important to pick a good theme. In this post I’ll look at the evolution of WordPress themes, page builders and Gutenberg. I’ll test some of the most popular themes to see how they handle Gutenberg and make some recommendations for the future.
The Rise of the General Purpose Theme
Back in the old days, people purchased niche themes appropriate for their site: a restaurant theme, church theme, lawyer theme, dentist theme and so on.
Freelancers and agencies who built lots of sites joined theme clubs that had a large selection of themes available and that regularly released new ones.
It is no coincidence that general purpose themes developed in tandem with page builders. Elegant Themes has released 87 themes over the years, but now only Divi and Extra are featured. Divi was one of the first widely popular general purpose themes. It is a stylish and highly customizable theme coupled with a page builder that can be used to create a wide variety of sites.
As page builders gained popularity the general purpose themes flourished. GeneratePress was released in July 2016. OceanWP was released in October of the same year. Astra was released in April of 2017. Instead of niche themes tailored to a particular use, we now had themes with a slew of Customizer options. This signaled the decline of the old theme clubs as site builders picked their favorite general purpose theme and paired it with their favorite page builder. I’m not saying niche themes are dead, but they are now the “long tail,” chosen for one-off projects. The general purpose themes are dominating.
The Introduction of Gutenberg
The WordPress editor, before Gutenberg, had a few huge issues. For instance, creating columns was a pain, placing images inline with content was hit or miss, and people who used the editor regularly got used to switching into Text mode to style or tweak what wasn’t possible in HTML mode. The ease of use and popularity of page builders made these shortcoming stand out. WordPress itself was like a coral reef that had developed gradually with new features being added over old ossified ones. Matt Mullenweg, co-founder and steward of the WordPress project, wisely realized that if the platform did not modernize it would be doomed.
Mullenweg targeted the editor as the place to start. Originally a blogging platform, the WordPress editor was central to the site owner’s experience and a modern editor would keep WordPress competitive with Wix and Squarespace. However, WordPress didn’t have, and still doesn’t have, a lead software architect. Instead, Matt invited Automattic developers and core contributors to experiment and imagine what a new modern editor might look like.
Facebook reconsidered and changed its license. In my mind, this was Matt Mullenweg’s “Clint Eastwood” moment.
Gutenberg Comes of Age and WordPress is Changed Forever
The new editor required a lot more developer skills and enthusiasts felt disenfranchised. Cottage developers realized that they would have to learn new skills, support the old editor as well as the new block editor, and there was uncertainty if their creations would continue to work well. Among users there was so much anger about Gutenberg that for a time the Classic Editor plugin, which would prevent Gutenberg from taking over the editor, was the fastest growing plugin in the WordPress directory. The Gutenberg plugin, where the new editor was developed prior to inclusion in core, has only 2 stars and more than 2 thousand 1 star reviews.
Given that Gutenberg was being figured out as it went along, there was a large amount of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
People often refer to the “WordPress Community” but really I think there are multiple overlapping communities. Members of all of these groups felt like they had a stake and ownership in WordPress, but the process of Gutenberg development showed that decisions are made from the top. In a project like Gutenberg, I’m not sure that it is possible to design it democratically, where everyone has a vote, but communication hasn’t always been good.
It was not until December 2017, during Matt Mullenweg’s State of the Word address that the tide began to turn. Matias Ventura, lead Gutenberg developer, gave a live demo. I think that people were pleasantly surprised. A year later WordPress 5 was released with Gutenberg as the default editor. Since then Gutenberg has undergone continuous improvements and many people are starting to embrace it.
Use the WordPress Editor for Post Content
Pages are one-off creations: about us, contact, landing pages, etc. These are static pages that don’t often change. A typical site might have a handful to a few dozen pages. Posts, on the other hand, are expected to be more numerous. You might have hundreds of posts.
I am very surprised when people suggest creating post content with a page builder. There are many reasons for using the built-in WordPress editor, among them:
- By using the built-in WordPress editor you future-proof your content. If you want to switch away from the page builder for some reason you might have to redo a manageable number of pages, but needing to reformat hundreds of pages would be very daunting.
- Writing long form posts in a text widget is painful. The text widgets / modules / elements of a page builder are not designed for long form content. Doing so would become unwieldy.
- There is a huge ecosystem of tutorials, blocks, and centered about the WordPress editor. It is better to take advantage of that then cut yourself off from it.
Gutenberg is the Future – The Classic Editor Will Go Away
The Classic Editor will be supported through 2021.
The Classic Editor will be officially supported until 2022. After that some volunteers might keep it going, but we are about half way through the transition period. If you are not using Gutenberg yet, it is time to start thinking about your transition plan. Gutenberg is not going away and in fact it is being expanded to include full site layout. And that brings up back to themes …
Bad Time for a New Theme? Gutenberg is a Dumpster Fire for Theme Developers
I’ve been hearing for a while now that it is a bad time to try to get into the theme business. The heyday of WordPress themes has passed. A lot of the old theme clubs have gone out of business or been sold. Hosting companies seem to be saving some of the good ones from closing.
From reading online and also from speaking directly with theme authors, I understand that supporting Gutenberg in your theme is very difficult. The Gutenberg API is not stable, there are lots of changes, class styles are inconsistent, multiple versions need to be supported, and there is not good communication.
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise
Despite all of the reasons why it is a bad time for a new theme, several new themes have been recently launched. They are getting a lot of attention for two reasons:
- They are bringing new features, such as a header and footer builder.
- They have deep support for Gutenberg.
The Kadence, Blocksy, and eStar themes are three examples. In that list, Kadence themes has a popular blocks plugin and eStar is developed by the same team that creates Meta Box. Meta Box has a block creator addon. Blocky was created with the explicit purpose of supporting Gutenberg. So these are developers are already familiar with Gutenberg and are leveraging those skills to create themes.
Then there are theme developers who have Gutenberg plugins. The Astra theme and the popular Ultimate addons for Gutenberg plugin, for instance. Tom Osborne, the developer of the GeneratePress theme, has just released Generateblocks, a block set for Gutenberg.
A Gutenberg Test
Back in February I wrote a post looking at Elementor’s new global theme styles features. I looked at whether Elementor theme styles were applied in Gutenberg, or how “global” were they really. I found when testing that some Gutenberg blocks are difficult for themes to support, especially the button block. So I had the idea to test some popular and some new general purpose themes and look at support for two Gutenberg blocks: the button block and the cover image block.
How the Test was Setup
The official WordPress Theme Team has demo content that you can install, which includes some posts with Gutenberg blocks. This allows testers to see if the theme is handling Gutenberg blocks or not. I installed this test data and setup a menu to quickly get to the test pages.
I installed the themes and set the button styles in the theme Customizer. All of the themes have the option to set button styles, though some of them needed a premium version (which I added if necessary). I set a dark blue background with white text for the normal state, with the colors reversed on hover. When there was the option, I sent a 1 pixel blue border and 4 pixel rounded corners, though not all themes had those options.
The cover image block allows you to set an image as a background and show text over it. The image has the option to be different sizes, including full width. I adjusted the theme settings to allow for something like full width contained, where that option was available. I also removed the sidebar to give the theme the chance to show the cover blocks correctly.
I don’t expect all of the themes to handle the blocks exactly the same. There may be some “artistic” differences or different interpretations of the relationship between the theme and the Gutenberg output.
Twenty Nineteen Theme
The Twenty Nineteen theme is a good benchmark as the core team keeps it up to date with Gutenberg changes. Gutenberg has three button styles: rounded, outline, and square. The cover image has several alignment options: left, center, right, wide, and full.
And here is the way a core theme renders buttons and cover images. The buttons rendered correctly, but the bottom cover image is supposed to be centered! Apparently, even core themes are having trouble keeping up.
The Astra Theme
My expectation was that Astra would deftly handle all of the Gutenberg styles since the same team creates the Ultimate Addons for Gutenberg. I was surprised that the button styles were all the same, though that is how they were set in the Customizer and maybe that was their decision on how Customizer settings should trickle down (?). Also, the outline button didn’t show at all, unless you hovered over it, which was a problem. Note, however, that the last cover image is correctly centered.
Beaver Builder Theme
The Beaver Builder team has been actively engaged with the Gutenberg project, so I expected good results. I was surprised that the Gutenberg button block picked up none of the Customizer button settings. The Beaver Builder theme did show the cover images correctly.
The Blocksy Theme
The Blocky theme is a new theme that has gotten a lot of attention because it is very fast and it was built for the Gutenberg editor. I noticed that the section with the left aligned button was wider than the rest of the page. That might be an “artistic” decision (?). Otherwise, Blocky showed the buttons and cover images correctly.
The Divi Theme
Divi is a very popular theme that in many ways started the page builder with general purpose theme revolution. Sadly, Gutenberg support doesn’t seem to be on its radar, as it did not support the Gutenberg buttons or the cover image blocks.
The eStar Theme
The eStar theme is from Greta Themes, a theme shop that has been around for a while and that is run by the same team that creates the Meta Box plugins. The eStar theme is their first general purpose theme and it rendered the Gutenberg blocks without issue.
The Generate Press Theme
The Generate Press theme is a widely respected, general purpose theme. The team recently released its own Gutenberg blocks set, GenerateBlocks, so it was no surprise that they nailed the tests.
Note that Generate Press did not have a border outline option in its Customizer button settings. The “Outline” button doesn’t show the outline version as I expected. However, when I hovered over it I did see the outline version. I guess that was a theme interpretation.
The Hello Theme
The Hello Theme is popular with Elementor Pro users as it is very lightweight and provides practically no styles. Content is meant to be themed entirely in Elementor. The only Customizer options supplied are the core settings.
Elementor advertises global styles, but those are only within Elementor pages. Here I’ve set the button styles in Elementor as I did in the Customizer for the other themes.
Not surprisingly, there were no theme (or Elementor) styles applied to the Gutenberg blocks.
The Kadence Theme
The Kadence theme is a new general purpose theme from Kadence Themes. The name suggests that it is intended as the flagship theme. Kadence also has the popular Kadence Blocks plugin. The Kadence theme rendered the buttons and cover blocks correctly.
The Neve Theme
The Neve theme is from ThemeIsle. They are a theme company that has been in business for many years. For a long time they only sold niche themes and said they would never produce a general purpose theme. However, the rise in popularity of Elementor and other page builders changed their mind and Neve was launched. It is another fast, lightweight theme with a header and footer builder. They have a Gutenberg Otter Blocks plugin.
The Gutenberg button blocks showed none of the Customizer button styles. I was surprised. The wide version of the cover block seemed “wide” in relation to the content, but perhaps that falls within the artistic parameters.
The OceanWP Theme
The OceanWP theme is another popular, general use and page builder friendly theme. It is geared mainly for Elementor users. The button blocks did not have any of the Customizer styling applied.
I had trouble with the alignments of Gutenberg pages, especially with the cover block. There is the option for “full width” and the option for “100% full width” (see the Layout options in this screen shot). There was also the Layout Style option of wide or boxed.
So for both of these screenshots I selected full width (not the 100% version). The one of the left is with the boxed setting and the one of the right is the wide setting. Neither one is as I would have expected.
The Page Builder Framework Theme
The Page Builder Framework launched with the goals of being lightweight, minimalist, and working well with page builders. Features are carefully added and the theme is slowly gaining adherents. With the introduction of Gutenberg in core, the Page Builder Framework team has committed to Gutenberg support. The blocks rendered well, though the button borders did not show, though they were defined in the Customizer.
Summary and Recommendations
In this post I looked at how the “themescape” evolved from niche themes, to general purpose themes for use with page builders, to the current time where Gutenberg ready themes are important. I took the time to traverse that history because my recommendations are based on that perspective.
Recommendation One: Which Themes to Watch
Hopefully you are seeing where I’m going. Gutenberg is the future and the themes to bank on are the ones with a commitment to strong Gutenberg support. Since Gutenberg itself is undergoing constant change, the best bet are those developers who are keeping up with Gutenberg. Some of them are also working with block plugin packs. Others have committed to maintaining Gutenberg support. Generate Press, Kadence, and eStar are 3 themes that show promise for going the distance and keeping up with the changes in Gutenberg. All are from theme developers that have been around for a while and who are also involved in Gutenberg, in one way or another.
Blocksy is a new theme that also shows promise, but doesn’t have a track record yet. I would expect Astra and the Page Builder Framework themes to be in the group to watch also. For both of those themes it looks like the Button block styles were supported, but need to be updated. I suggest you pick your favorites and test them with each WordPress update.
Recommendation Two: Where to Put Your Money
Many site builders tend to watch for new products and deals that they can leverage when creating multiple sites. Often these are addons for page builders. I’m not saying don’t buy page builder addons, but I’d start to shift to spending in the Gutenberg area. Remember, Gutenberg is becoming a full blown page and site builder. The features you commonly see in page builder addon packs are appearing in Gutenberg addon packs.
Recommendation Three: Don’t Use Page Builder Specific Themes
My third recommendation is to not use page builder specific themes if there is going to be a blog or content marketing. The Beaver Builder theme, Divi, the Hello Theme, and OceanWP were the worse at supporting Gutenberg. This is not surprising as they were, after all, designed to support a page builder. However, site builders often turn to these general purpose themes for a wide variety of projects, and I’m suggesting that for some of those sites, where the WordPress editor will be used, these are not a good choice. They aren’t supporting Gutenberg styles well.
A Caveat: There is a Long Road Ahead
There is certainly time for theme authors to change course. For example, Astra did OK in the test but not as well as expected and the Beaver Builder theme did poorly. Those theme authors, or any of the others, could be waiting in the hopes that Gutenberg will stabilize and plan to “wow us” down the road with fantastic block support. There is still plenty of time to do that, but I wonder if those themes playing catch up will remain behind those that are staying current with Gutenberg?
We have seen three new Gutenberg focused themes recently released: Blocksy, eStar, and Kadence. There will be more. Also, we can expect many more Gutenberg block addons to be released as Gutenberg is further integrated with WordPress core. We don’t know what WordPress will look like in 2 years. However, by identifying trends I’m trying to provide actionable insights.
Recommendation Four: Invest in the People as Much as the Product
Since things are still in a state of change, I think that David Waumsley’s approach of getting to know the people behind the product is a wise move. Perhaps a plugin or theme is always more than the software itself, but it is an especially important consideration when the future is uncertain. You will want to choose people and teams that are talented, nimble, and share your values and approach. Avoid those wanting to make a quick buck and support those who approach their software like crafts people.
These are my thoughts and recommendations. Please let me know what you think in the comments. Thank you.