There’s this perspective in the WordPress development community that results in a bit of divide among those who are involved. Granted, this is not the only perspective – it’s one of many – but it’s one that prevalent enough that most anyone who spends any amount of time chatting with peers online is likely to stumble across:

  • Bad: Themes with a lot of options and features.
  • Good: Themes without many options or features.

I’m oversimplifying this a little bit because the truth is not everyone thinks a theme without many options is a good thing (though we do love to get behind the “Decisions, Not Options” philosophy). Instead, it’s more like:

  • Bad: Themes with a lot of options
  • Good: Themes with a few options
  • Weird: Themes with no options

Maybe “weird” isn’t the right word, maybe it is, but it’s a lot more concise than saying “something that doesn’t really fit between these two,” isn’t it?

To be clear, I’m not defending the idea that it’s okay for themes to have a lot of features and a lot of options and and a lot of proverbial knobs to turn, but I do question is it really productive continually talk about it?

Your Work Sucks

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a discussion about what makes a good theme or anything like that. I think conversations and talks like that ultimately help make us re-evalute our own decisions for what we think, and ultimately help shape the approach that we take when creating WordPress-based products.

But having a discussion over things is different than publicly whining about someone else’s work, isn’t it? That is to say, what good is really coming from sharing a negative opinion about someone else’s work?

Ah, another theme with 500 short codes, two sliders, 99 meta boxes, and 20 custom post types.

It’s become trite. I know, I know: Anyone who’s anyone in WordPress tends to talk about this at some point. But what happens if we don’t talk about it?

Does anything really change?

Doubtful. People are still going to be creating extremely minimalistic themes and extremely feature-heavy themes and everything in between. There’s nothing that really comes from talking about this kind of stuff, at least not on a wide scale.

motivations

Ironically, some of the very same people from whom we draw our inspiration and who have said a number of quotable things that we use to inspire us say things that fly in the face of what we’re actually doing.

Can we have it both ways? I dunno. I do think it feels a little incongruent to do something that’s in opposition to those opinions, beliefs, quotes, people, and thoughts that inspire us, but we’re all different in how we deal with and interpret that kind of stuff.

Anyway, I’ll say that if you’re hanging out with other developers at a conference, a meet up, an event, or even just for dinner and you’re casually talking about this, that’s at least in a closed, conversational manner, but taking it to places like Twitter where you’re just blurting into the global chatroom that it is doesn’t change anything.

People are still going to be creating things you dislike; people are still going to be creating things that you like. You’re still going to be building things for other people; others are still going to be building things for other people.

No, I’m not saying that I think it’s okay for us to create things that are incredibly feature-heavy. I’m in pretty stark opposite to that, but I’d also rather be the type of person who accepts the fact that other people are going to create things like this and they are going to find success and that’s great.

It’s their prerogative to build things like that, anyway.

If you take an open source project that’s freely available and you opt to building something on top of it in that way, then that’s fine. There’s no restriction on that and it’s clear that there is a demand for things like that.

At the same time, if you opt to build something that’s leaner, that’s fine too. There’s demand for that, as well.

Ultimately, I think that we need to work on the type of projects that we like the most and we need to focus on doing the best possible job that we can and stop talking so much about the things we dislike in other people’s work.

We are all subject to one another’s scrutiny and talking about what you dislike in something that you have absolutely no ability to change seems weird. Does it really make sense to spend a little bit of time each day pointing out all of the problems or the decisions that others have made that we dislike (and not even do anything about it)?

I’d rather be the type of person who demonstrates his opinions in the projects and software that are created, rather than in sporadic comments here or there.

That, at least, gives me something tangible for the philosophies, opinions, and so on that I respect. The rest is just noise.

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Join the conversation! 12 Comments

  1. Great thoughts Tom. I’ve pondered upon this issue quite a bit myself.
    I think the difference between the two camps, lean vs option heavy, is the target user.
    I’ve worked on a number of bloated Frankenthemes and they were an incredible pain from a development standpoint. I’d much rather have a theme that deals only with presentation so I don’t have to sift through thousands of lines of incomprehensible, barely documented, spaghetti code in order to get things done.
    But to Joe WordPress user having all the options is great because they can change their site into something unique to their taste and workflow. I’ve heard exactly that from a number of clients.
    What we have here are two conflicting paradigms. Neither side will change and so we have a pointless debate that will never end.
    Anyway, I’ve been silently lurking around your blog for a while now and thought I’d give my 2 cents. :-)

    • I’ve worked on a number of bloated Frankenthemes and they were an incredible pain from a development standpoint.

      Indeed, man. Any codebase that’s bloated or that’s hodge-podged together turns into that mess. No fun to maintain, for sure.

      I’d much rather have a theme that deals only with presentation so I don’t have to sift through thousands of lines of incomprehensible, barely documented, spaghetti code in order to get things done.

      Amen.

      What we have here are two conflicting paradigms. Neither side will change and so we have a pointless debate that will never end.

      Reminds me of some major political issues, too. But I digress on that because there’s no fun in talking about that ;).

      Thanks for lurking – and for finally commenting!

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, these kinds of posts are refreshing because they really speak to the ethos of the community rather than just the nuts and bolts. I like that you mentioned that talking about these things helps people process out load, and that it’s not the conversation itself that’s destructive but the tone and how it happens (I’ve totally rephrased what you said, but how I understood it). My one caveat is that I’ve always had an issue with that Steve Jobs quote, it suggests that only the “builders” have a right to complain. That smacks in the face against every marketing rule we know that says the customer comes first. There are A LOT of WordPress professionals who don’t code their own themes or plugins but depend quality products to get their work done. They don’t necessarily know how to code a theme from scratch, but they certainly have a well-informed opinion on what makes for a good theme or plugin.

    Again, thanks for sharing.

    • A bit off topic, but I don’t think that’s what the quote suggests. I doubt it was said in that context.

      • Of course not. The quote wasn’t used in the context of criticizing a WordPress theme :).

        Jobs said it when talking to a blogger who was criticizing the decisions that Apple was making with respect to their products and whether or not Bob Dylan of whom Jobs was a big fan) would find them revolutionary.

        The blogger was primarily upset because he felt that Apple was imposing their morality on their customers. I don’t know if it matters whether or not it’s a moral issue for the purposes of this post or this comment, but it’s the general idea of what a company has the right to do or not to do.

        Just as with theme developers (and like I said):

        It’s their prerogative to build things like that, anyway.

        And, conversely:

        At the same time, if you opt to build something that’s leaner, that’s fine too. There’s demand for that, as well.

        But the general idea behind each still stands: A person attacks another person (or a company) for building products in a way for which they have free reign to do so, but offers little-to-no suggestion on how the situation could be improved.

        When someone criticizes something you’ve done or is trying to offer something constructive to say, their words can carry more weight if it’s backed by well-informed, educated, and perhaps even evidential decisions (“Feature-heavy themes are based because [of these reasons]” and “Apple should not enforce their morality on me [because of these reasons].”) neither or which are often specified.

        But even if it is a stretch or it’s taken out of context to the point of irrelevancy, the point of criticizing others building what they have the freedom to do without offering some type of constructive feedback still stands.

  3. Does it really make sense to spend a little bit of time ranting about others ranting?

    • Not really, no – ranting without intent is just complaining. But ranting with a purpose of sharing an idea and any number of possible solutions is different.

      I think we walk a fine line in doing that online. We’re really quick to say “[This] sucks,” but we don’t say why. And if we say “[This] sucks because [of this reason],” though a bit better, still doesn’t offer a solution.

      But “[This] sucks because [of this reason]. Maybe we can try [to do this] to address it” is something that can actually lead to something more productive.

  4. Good thoughts.

    The market pressure toward fast, cheap and good has created the “frankentheme,” but the frankentheme’s popularity has driven a lot of smart innovation looking for a middle ground between the maximalist and minimalist extremes. Every year it’s easier than the last to build a simple site more quickly, less expensively, and with “pretty good” results — both aesthetically and under the hood. A solid middle position has emerged in the theme/builder/framework ecosystem, and some recent innovations have come closer than ever to offering a solid “goldilocks” option.

    For me “the best way to do WordPress” is an ideal that bends and makes compromises based on budgets and end-user needs/limitations more than anything else, down to the point where it’s just not worth it and you say so. But if the budget is there and say the end-user needs substantial control over page layouts without learning to code, you’re not going to give them something hand crafted on _s because that’s not where the value is for them. Being too much of a purist in that case would be bad business and a bit unkind to the end user.

    • But if the budget is there and say the end-user needs substantial control over page layouts without learning to code, you’re not going to give them something hand crafted on _s because that’s not where the value is for them. Being too much of a purist in that case would be bad business and a bit unkind to the end user.

      Exactly.

      It all depends on who you’re building the theme for and how they are going to be using it.

  5. Premium Theme Approach 1:
    Lots of features/bloat/shortcodes to attempt to fit an extremely wide array of clients and deliver the maximum return on development investment. Current price range: $15-$85. Lots of potential customers. This may be good or bad approach for specific websites – not making a judgement in this regard.

    Premium Theme Approach 2:
    Discrete features, design elements, and custom posts types to fit a specific use type and client niche. Nice options panel for mild customization. Current price range the same as Approach 1? Does this better serve site owners?

    Custom Theme Approach
    Discrete features, design elements, and custom posts types to fit a specific use type and client niche. Current price range depends on many factors, $1000-$10,000?

    Choose an approach that works for you and your client and let others do the same.

    • Choose an approach that works for you and your client and let others do the same.

      Definitely.

      But for those who are looking for a model to follow out of, say, your three, then it’s always nice to know how each performs given certain conditions.

      The third case is a little different since each one is like a once off, but the other two are a little bit more capable of being systematized.

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