On WordPress Theme Innovation

As I mentioned last week, there are a few things that are coming with regards to how Pressware‘s theme (with more in the pipeline) to be treated with the nature of open source.

But in preparing for this shift, I’ve also been giving a lot of thought about a number of different things with regard to how we go about building plugins, themes, extensions, tools, and so on for WordPress. I think that we intrinsically know that we should be focused on our users, but I think there’s also something inside of us that wants to impress our peers.

I mean, surely it’s not just me, right?

But here’s what I’m getting at:

What would it look like to spend time critically investigating every single decision that went into a, say, theme’s design?

That is, I think it’s common to assume that all blogs will include a header, content area, and a footer along with an optional sidebar, but what about menu systems, widgets, and other optional areas?

So often, I think that we get in the routine of putting a new coat of paint on the same elements that we stop thinking, reconsidering, or investigating what options we have that could potentially bring innovation to the space.

Then again, I’m not claiming I’m that person. This is just one of those things that you end up thinking about whenever you, y’know, have too much time to think about what you’re doing.

But I know that in the future, one of the things that I want to do for the particular projects I want to release:

  • Focus far more on simplicity. If a person’s ultimate goal is to write, then nothing should get in the way of them being able to do within the context of the environment that they are writing.
  • Think Critically About Every Element. Does a theme need an author box? Do there need to be social icons? If a person is just blogging more of a life stream, do they need a menu or can they just use the menu widget?
  • Do we need sidebars? Or is it enough for the main stream of content to be the primary focus of the blog?

Obviously, each of these questions has their pros and cons when talking about blogging themes (versus, say, real estate themes, magazine themes, etc.) and I’m not trying to provide a definitive list of questions (or answers, for that matter) for any of the above.

I am, though, trying to get us to think a bit more towards potential customers, outside-the-box, and potentially in more innovative ways that we’ve seen over the past few years with regards to themes.

I know I’m not the only one who’s thought some of this through, so what is it that you guys and girls are thinking through, as well?

10 Replies to “On WordPress Theme Innovation”

  1. Agree with you, and more than that, WP is in competition now with younger/innovative complains that don’t have this long-year legacy to carry… that can be free to re-think writing and re-think content creation. I think the WP world do need to be more insightful when comes to design new themes (that have a major effect about the content creation…)

    Otherwise? WP will become non-relevant.

  2. It’s true: we need to get away from the idea that all themes need the same structure. If WP is truly a CMS then theme composition should be customised to use case. That could mean nothing more than header, footer and an index for displaying all content.

    Commercial themes are arguably different since you’re often selling to the widest possible audience and you need to cater to that. But even then, why not a very niche theme? As long as you market it honestly your customers won’t complain.

    I think it must often be discouraging for new theme coders to approach this mountain of a task to get all the bells and whistles into a theme when it’s just not necessary. On the other hand, there’s an incredible feeling of freedom when you realise you’ve only got one or two template files to worry about and you can focus on making them as good as they can be and well suited to the task at hand.

    Try this analogy: we’re told, and it’s generally true, that you should design from mobile size up, adding media queries as needed to manipulate the layout. Only add what is needed for those additional breakpoints. Why not take that view with theme design? Start with header, footer, index. Then when it doesn’t make sense to do something in your index, create the appropriate additional template file. With WP’s great template hierarchy those additional template files can be very specialised just like those media queries. Only add in what’s needed.

    Re sidebars in particular: with mobile-first responsive design, hasn’t the sidebar just become that extra bit that we can float to the right on larger screens? I mean, you’ve got to put something over there. Or do you? On mobile screen sizes the sidebar is just an extra footer. Don’t need it? Then just build a more information-rich footer.

  3. Good questions raised about design in general, and WordPress design, specifically.

    As you mentioned, innovation is the key element here, and perhaps in 3 out of 5 cases there is no real requirement for it.

    This means that the standard formula of header, sidebar and footer will work quite nicely.

    In 2 out of 5 cases, however, some creative thinking will benefit the overall communication potential of the site. This is where a “one size does not fit all” philosophy comes into play.

    So, the question/consideration then becomes what the real cost of design is, and not just its financial aspect (although this will be implied as well). What would be the actual cost of a design that considered each element carefully, and perhaps offered a unique, elegant approach to content communication; as against one that just went with the formula?

    One could argue that customers just want something that works, and in actual fact they do. And what works is equals to conversions, leads and sales.

    Use case for themes will vary from owner to owner, and it can be difficult to prove potential tangible benefits due to a thoughtful design (although several studies out there claim to do so); but I think in general that if a well thought out design can help the owner generate more leads, or convert more sales that would be a good justification.

    Otherwise the standard formula works fine, and makes it easy for new theme owners to make a start (familiarity), till the next design trend sweeps in.

    1. As you mentioned, innovation is the key element here, and perhaps in 3 out of 5 cases there is no real requirement for it.

      Yeah – I mean, I don’t necessarily have any metrics for it or anything like that. I generally think that it depends on what type of site you are building rather than trying to achieve this one-size-fits-all brand, but in the context of building things specifically for publishers, authors, and bloggers, is there really innovation that can be made?

      The optimist in me wants to say yes, but I’m also more of a pessimist than anything ;).

      In 2 out of 5 cases, however, some creative thinking will benefit the overall communication potential of the site. This is where a “one size does not fit all” philosophy comes into play.

      Bingo.

      One could argue that customers just want something that works, and in actual fact they do. And what works is equals to conversions, leads and sales.

      But something that works and that works well, not only in the way of beind highly functional but also something that’s a pleasure to use for the end user.

      1. Yes, Tom, agreed.

        There’s always innovation that can be made for publishers, authors and bloggers. Especially as we’re all now consuming content differently. The innovation here may be as simple as re-ordering elements, but there is room for it.

        Where I see a lot of themes struggling nowadays is in balancing aesthetic with function and efficiency. They might be good in one area but lacking in the others.

        Given that a “multipurpose” approach is generally going to end in disappointment, perhaps a focused theme (i.e. a theme that does one thing only), is where we might be able to see the most beneficial innovation take place.

        Most themes that I have worked with recently have been anything but a pleasure to use. The amount of complexity (both front-end and back-end) is growing, and are mostly undocumented at that.

        Perhaps that is where we need the most innovation: one that provides an elegant WordPress design solution to a web communication scenario (website type), which respects the user.

  4. I pretty much agree with you. I have had been working on this big theme framework for last 7 months which doesn’t seem to end as in I keep changing it right from the scratch to give it a new direction.

    I know, I am just going to finish it up this time. 94% complete. I plan to build something really simple, truly meaningful with utmost focus at one factor -> User Experience

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