With Mayer about to turn a year old (they grow up so fast), with a healthy backlog of features sitting in the queue, and with two other themes sitting in the planning stage for the first part of this year, I’ve been thinking a bit about WordPress themes as a whole.

Sounds like I have too much free time doesn’t it?

But seriously, one of the things that I do wonder about is how long a WordPress theme can actually be sold and continue to be viable for users especially since design trends change. Additionally, I think that there are times in which a theme has reached the maximum number of features it can justifiably offer before it just begins to feel a bit crowded.

The Shelf Life of a WordPress Theme

First, what is the shelf life of a WordPress theme? Since WordPress themes provide the design of the site, and since design trends change every few years, is there a correlation to how long a WordPress theme can be sold?

I’m apt to say yes, but then part of me also knows that people will purchase something if they think it looks good regardless of if it follows modern trends, design patterns (in terms of actual design, not software), and so on. At least this is true to a degree.

Furthermore, once you’ve released a theme, I don’t think it’s a good idea to make any drastic updates to the way it looks because that ultimately results in a new theme.

So is there a level of expectation that we should have whenever we release a theme, or should we let numbers be what dictate whether or not something continues to be left on the marketplace? After all, I don’t think any company wants to be known as the one that sells outdated designs (then again, who knows, money is a big motivator for many).

Feature Creeping

A second aspect of building and maintaining themes is that of introducing and maintaining features. Yes, it’s easy to come up with an endless list of things to continue adding to a theme but I tend to think that each time a new feature is introduced, it’s either going to contribute to the core identity of a theme or it’s going to begin diluting it.

For example, if you have a theme that’s designed specifically for bloggers then there are really only so many features you can begin to pack into the theme before it begins to just have features for the sake of having features. And though it’s fun to actually build stuff in general, building things without an actual purpose or building things that dilute the identity of the product that you’re selling isn’t a very good strategy (if that’s what you’d even call it).

And that’s it: I don’t know what the shelf life is of a WordPress theme, though I know one exists, and I don’t know how many features are too many features, though I know there is an upper limit.

I’m interested in your take on it – that is, if you have one.

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Join the conversation! 9 Comments

  1. To me, a more important question is how long will a premium theme be supported by the developer? Once it’s no longer supported, will a future WordPress update render it useless?

    Because of this, I think it’s key to stick with developers who are in it for the long haul. But to address the question of shelf life, I pitch this to potential clients as a strong suit. If they pick the “flavor of the month” theme and it becomes outdated then we can always switch out to a more current theme for a minimal charge.

  2. I only have two (publicly available) themes that I actively maintain. Both have been existing from around 2008. They’ve only required one substantial rewrite. The rewrite was necessary for upgrading to HTML5 tags, responsiveness and addition of web fonts, none of which were viable back when the themes were originally made. So that’s one big change in six years. Other than that, they’ve only under gone extremely minor changes. I think that’s pretty okay. One upgrade every three years. Functionality wise they’re the same as they were when they first launched apart from minor changes due to upgrades in WordPress core.

  3. I think you’re right and the actual shelf life can depend on a lot of things. For instance, feature development might slow down. But the world of the web changes enough that there can be other things to consider, like Ryan’s update for HTML5. Recently iOS 8 introduced a bug in one of the UI tools my plugins use. I have no doubt that the proliferation of devices will cause similar problems in the coming years. In that sense, a theme might stop feature development without ever ending its shelf life. If it still solves problems for people, continue to sell it, continue to keep it going in the face of changing standards. And then it’s still on the shelf.

    But I am expecting to retire themes myself, as my product offering matures and develops. Here’s how I’ve imagined it going: when a theme is retired it enters into a maintenance period during which feature development stops. The product would still be updated to be compatible with new versions of WordPress (which frankly should be pretty much never thanks to WP’s backwards compatibility), any security flaws found would be addressed, and major (not minor) issues in compatibility with certain plugins (a core part of my theme offering) or new devices would be fixed where reasonable (I’m not going to add support for the Apple Watch!). When a theme is retired, I’ll stop selling it and grant existing customers a lifetime license so that they have access to these critical updates at no charge.

    The goal of sustainability in the theme business is important. But I don’t think that means a product is constantly improving. It means that product still works 2-5 years down the line.

  4. When I worked for The Theme Foundry, the most popular theme they sold was Linen. That was over 2 years ago. Linen is still the top-selling premium theme on WordPress.com. You can see the rankings here: https://theme.wordpress.com/themes/sort/popular/

    Linen was designed years ago, but (I think) it still does well for TTF. Minimal/simple themes can have a longer shelf life. Things like typography and good use of white space are timeless.

    I’d say the shelf life is longer than you’d expect, given you’re designing with the long-term in mind.

    Interestingly, TTF’s Shelf theme seems to have moved past it’s “shelf”-life – it’s no longer featured on their main themes page.

  5. Most popular things stay around for a very long time. If you look at Elegant Themes they have themes that were built back when WordPress first released. They’re still offering them though not offering continued feature or design upgrades.

    I think that the shelf life of a theme really doesn’t even have anything to do with the theme itself. I believe that themes are completely dependent upon the technologies they’re built on as well as outside influences.

    I have a really strong opinion about themes and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings when I say what I’m about to say, but the fact is that there are so many themes out there at this point that I don’t even think it matters if you continue to try to keep a theme alive. It’s far easier (in my opinion) to simply build a new theme than it is to maintain an old one.

    I also believe that themes need to stop trying to do it all and this would reduce the need for so many updates / feature packing. If themes stuck just to design aspects and let plugins do the building we wouldn’t have to have so many themes.

    •  Most popular things stay around for a very long time. If you look at Elegant Themes they have themes that were built back when WordPress first released. They’re still offering them though not offering continued feature or design upgrades.

      This is true – I think it’s a good thing to remember this, too.

       I think that the shelf life of a theme really doesn’t even have anything to do with the theme itself. I believe that themes are completely dependent upon the technologies they’re built on as well as outside influences.

      Then I’d say their shelf life is dictated by the life of their dependencies, but this is probably a discussion for another post and one we’d probably end up agreeing on anyway :). 

       I have a really strong opinion about themes and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings when I say what I’m about to say, but the fact is that there are so many themes out there at this point that I don’t even think it matters if you continue to try to keep a theme alive. It’s far easier (in my opinion) to simply build a new theme than it is to maintain an old one.

      Nothing you’ve said is offensive so I don’t think that an apology is necessary. And I’ve pretty strong opinions on themes as well – I’ve written about them in other posts – but the thing most closely related to what you’re talking about is that I think you’re thinking about themes from a development and design perspective.

      If you’re a blogger who has poured hours, months, or even years into a blog and have it all setup and customized based around a certain theme, then that theme is shut down or a redesign occurs (which effectively makes it a new theme), you’ve thrown your customers out to tread without a life jacket and they have to either stick with an rotting theme or find a new one and hope their content adapts.

      But, you’re right, it is easier to build a new one than anything else but I think that case could be made for any type of software, yet we’ve had software around for years and it’s still plugging along.

      • You’re right I am looking at it just from a development / designer view point. You’re also very right about software being around for years.

        I just wish there was a way to bridge the gap between constantly updating themes to new trends / technologies and keeping the end user happy. I know this happens with a lot of theme companies and there are a lot that do it very well. It’s just something I wish there was a better way (if there is or can be one).

  6. For my personal blog, I recently updated the theme — which I had been using since, oh, 2008? 2007? And then made the new theme look almost exactly like the old one. The new one had a framework behind it that offered newer features, but the look to the reader was fine by me.

    I’m not really a designer… I am more of an adapter. (your customer). Most of the sites I work with are built on WooThemes Canvas; others on other WooThemes Themes. I must say that I do a major redesign about every 3 years, with minor “updates” to the [child] theme for the primary customer about every 3 years. I banking on Woo continuing to support Canvas — but that theme is designed to be customized.

    You do make good points — some themes are almost timeless as long as the underlying code continues to function well. Others are flash in the pan.

    • You do make good points — some themes are almost timeless as long as the underlying code continues to function well. Others are flash in the pan.

      Yep – and those are the ones who I think we need to be especially careful about when using them for our sites (especially if we want to be around for a long time).

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