As a disclaimer, this entire post is written purely from the perspective of a developer. I’m not a designer, I’ve never claimed to be, I never will claim to be, and any type of design that I do is usually based around principles and foundations and guidelines that I’ve read and followed elsewhere on the web.

With that said, there’s been interesting conversations around some of the more popular design types as of late – some that are already retired, some that are still around, and some that are still beginning to emerge.

This includes trends such as Skeumorphic Design, Flat Design, and Material Design. And the reason I bring them up is because, at some point or another, we’ve seen these take their place (or beginning to take place) within the context of WordPress themes.

WordPress Theme Design

I know, some people will argue that design should be timeless. There are times that I find this to be true, but – for whatever reason – I seem to find this more true of things in the real world (or offline) than I do with things that are online.

Secondly, if there is a given popular trend that’s being set by a large technology company or that’s begin pushed by a major design firm, then odds are that it’s going to be adopted by people who follow, respect, and want to adopt said trends.

After all, it rarely hurts to listen to the experts, right?

The thing is, if you’ve been around the web long enough, then you know that these trends come and go – it’s the same thing that we see happening with clothes that we’ve worn throughout the decades and the same thing that we’ve seen with hairstyles that we’ve had.

There are going to be periods of time where we look at back at WordPress themes and think “What were we thinking?” and there are going to be times where we look at WordPress themes and think “Man, that looks really good.”

twentyfifteen

But I don’t know if there will ever be a time where we look at a WordPress theme and and claim that it has a timeless design. Sure, some have lasted a long time – I mean look at Kubrick – and some will likely persist longer than others (personally, I really like Twentyfifteen).

Kubrick

Though I wonder if we’re ever going to see a theme (or a suite of themes) that won’t have to be retired at some point simply because they’ve become a bit dated.

I’m especially curious on your take on this if you’re a designer.

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  1. Tom, as you know I have strong feelings on this.

    With that said, strip away all the “how cool is my collateral and I sure do hope it drives conversions” stuff, and the simple “truth” is that a big column and a small column are all that matters.

    If that’s as far as we take the conversation, then like you I have a warm spot in my heart for Kubrick. It’s just plain fine. It’s visually everything you need (on a desktop). Done.

    Sure, we need to talk about “responsive”, but since that word’s a moving target anyway trying to do so gets this conversation off track. Kubrick (interestingly, I agree with you that 2015 is very much like it, although that hadn’t occurred to me until just now) is … genuinely “timeless”.

    • With that said, strip away all the “how cool is my collateral and I sure do hope it drives conversions” stuff, and the simple “truth” is that a big column and a small column are all that matters.

      For a basic blogging theme, I tend to agree. There are only so many components that can go into a theme:

      • Header
      • Menu
      • Content area
      • Sidebar (or two)
      • Footer
      • and maybe an option widgetized footer area

      Sure, you can create a theme that serves a variety of purposes (store fronts, menus, etc., etc.) and I think there’s room for those to be designed in such a way that they last quite a while, too, but as far as the standard blog layout is concerned, I think that just a few common elements are about all that go into it.

      If that’s as far as we take the conversation, then like you I have a warm spot in my heart for Kubrick. It’s just plain fine. It’s visually everything you need (on a desktop). Done.

      It lasted a long time, didn’t it? I’d probably change the gradient of the header and probably the default font, but it’s core functionality really kind of strikes a good balance among all of the elements.

      • The only problem with Kubrick is now every time I see it, all I can think is “gawd, this person hasn’t updated their site in AGES!” If that’s not uncommon, then it’s kind of impossible for a theme to be “timeless,” because the themes feel tied, in some sense, to the time period they were produced in.

        • James:

          And thank goodness for those of us selling design and consulting services; that’s how we keep that whole 24-36 month do-over cycle going!

          OK, kidding, sort of. Your point is really quite well put. OTOH, that’s like saying “I think people in Michigan are the only folks with no discernible regional dialect”. It may in fact be correct, but it answers a different question than the (presumed) lead of “what’s unaccented American English sound like?”.

          In other words, everything is time, or location based. And I smirk when I see websites that haven’t been updated since 1996, too. But sometimes black-and-white films really are as good as color … especially if the color we’re talking about is that hideous Technicolor from the late 60s and early 70s.

          I think I just set a “ramble” record, even for me.

  2. “Timelessness” is hard to pin down. I no longer think it matters as much as people think…

    And, perhaps from at least a business perspective, it doesn’t seem to necessarily impact people’s decisions to purchase as much as we might believe either. That’s a good thing for those that know their audience well and who are building products specifically for them.

    • “Timelessness” is hard to pin down. I no longer think it matters as much as people think…

      In thinking about this, I tend to agree though I wonder if it’s because we’ve become more acustomed to the whole planned obselescence things and new, shinier things coming out more frequently, or if it’s because it really doesn’t matter.

      Maybe it’s both?

      I just look at, say, car designs from the decade of the 50’s and how they only changed a little bit from year to year. They’re considered classic now.

      I look how at quickly iterations change between, say, our phones or some other software that we use and it’s almost incomparable.

      Maybe that’s a weak a example (autos to software, ha), but you get my point.

      The gist is I just wonder if we’ve come to expect upgrades to be more than just “internal” upgrades over time.

      And, perhaps from at least a business perspective, it doesn’t seem to necessarily impact people’s decisions to purchase as much as we might believe either. 

      I agree with this. I think there are those of us who appreciate the timelessness of something, but you’re right in that it doesn’t really seem to impact pricing for many, if not most.

      That’s a good thing for those that know their audience well and who are building products specifically for them.

      This is good food for thought, too – that is, the audience matters. 

      Good stuff, John.

  3. Design that is mostly ornamentation of an underlying structure tends to obscure and even work against this structure — the result is “style” that can define an era, but for that reason it can’t be timeless. Design that brings the fundamental structure back to the foreground by accenting rather than ornamenting it excessively will be as timeless as the underlying structure.

    Despite its simplicity Kubrick had a distinctive, even overbearing style that does not hold up well. Others, like Manifest, still look good and usable because its minimal design functions primarily as an interface for reading, simply by getting out of the way of readers. It softly accentuates rather than heavily adorns the underlying structure. If you made Manifest responsive with proportional layouts and typography suitable to today’s screens it would look like Medium — or the simplest of ancient scrolls and manuscript codices. That type of design can seem boring, especially if it becomes popular, because it’s not expressive of individual identity through the design — it reserves that role for the writing and the writer. Nevertheless, it is as close as you can get to a timeless design.

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