Thoughts and ramblings on tech, media, culture, and food. Plus some other stuff, I'm sure.

Thoughts on WordPress Themes

Last week I wrote a piece on the Bravery blog about why we don't mod premium themes for WordPress. The majority of the professional web development work that I do is on WordPress and has been for the past four or so years. Before that I did WordPress primarily as a side gig while doing development on dotCMS and web marketing in higher education. Today, though, WordPress fills my days.

When I started out with WordPress I did the normal progresison of things and either modified existing themes or built on top of plain theme "frameworks". But a couple years into it, after learning a lot more about CSS and markup and putting my own standards on top of my coding practice, I decided that building themes from scratch was the way to go.

My main qualms with the premium theme market—and to be clear, my mind immediately goes to Envato/ThemeForest and WooThemes at this point—are bloat and poor practice. It's rough to modify these themes and everyone wants something custom.

WordPress Cost Stigma

If we're honest with ourselves, I think the premium theme market's popularity comes straight out of the general public's misconceptions about WordPress. This is peppered with poor choices WordPress designers and developers may have made early on, as well as the public's misunderstandings of how Open Source really works.

When I first started building WordPress themes it was out of a necessity; I didn't know how to build a complete web application with database connections and an interface to allow people to input text and images. And I didn't have time to learn how. WordPress was a huge time-saver and the cost to entry was super low. The fact that there's a large number of free themes from WordPress and various developers is appealing to a newcomer.

However, as this appeal extends to a wider audience without a technical background, they see it as a cheap and easy way to get a website, which it is. At the same time, this accurate perception gets layered atop and extended to their thinking about how WordPress is built. There's a disconnect between the free or inexpensive offerings they see and their understanding of the amount of actual work that goes into building a good WordPress theme or plugin.

Commodity, the bane of our existence

As premium theme "communities" opened up, they deftly harnessed their abilities to code once and sell thousands. But commoditization in any industry has side effects. In the case of WordPress themes, the main consequence for these developers selling thousands is becoming beholden to your customers' demands. For the customers, it's visual homogeneity.

Go on to ThemeForest's site (or, don't... it's not fun) and look at their premium WordPress options. You'll see at least one, but more likely all of these:

  1. Massive customization tools
  2. A Joomla! or Drupal equivalent
  3. SO MANY BONUS FEATURES INCLUDED FOR FREE!!1!
  4. eCommerce Integration (usually with WooCommerce)

These, appropriately, look appealing to your casual blogger or business owner that wants to get a website that looks good up and running. The majority of the popular themes are capitalizing on design trends from last year, and that helps them sell better.

With so many customization options, a person can really make their website feel unique... or at least, that's what they're meant to think. In reality, the customization options equate to a couple hundred select menus, checkboxes, and text fields to fill out and often within complex and poorly developed interfaces that don't fit into WordPress core UI standards.

It takes hours to go through them all. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. And in the end, your site has different colors, but that's about it. It doesn't look all that different than someone else's site that uses the same theme.

The fact that many of these premium theme developers sell Joomla! or Drupal versions of the same template suggests (and is not always the case) that they aren't primarily targeting WordPress with their work. All of these themes are repurposing HTML, CSS, and Javascript to whatever CMSes they support, but some of the shadier ones are building complete frameworks that sit on top of the native interface. To me, that seems extremely brittle, especially in the case of updates to plugins or the core CMS.

Consequences

I think these shoddy practices at building customization layers are why WordPress sustains—albeit a lot quieter these days, thank goodness—an added stigma of being dangerous to update. The progression looks like this:

Install Premium Theme > Update WordPress > Everything breaks! > Stop Updating WordPress > Everyone thinks WordPress isn't secure

And that's a shame.

We Don't Get What We Deserve

The other major consequence that theme designer/developers run into every day is that misunderstanding of what time and costs go into creating a WordPress theme. The disconnect between what we should be able to charge and what prospective clients assume the costs will be. The disparity is gigantic, and that forces many people without budget to run into the arms of the premium themes market.

It makes it hard for someone like me, who really enjoys doing one-off, fun projects, to take on clients for WordPress work that don't represent large companies. Individuals want a deal, obviously, but I have to send them packing and out to someone else because of the cost and time realities in building a custom theme.

And I just won't mod their purchased theme.

All that said

I'm not saying that the premium themes markets shouldn't exist. Indeed, their popularity has also contributed to the ubiquity of WordPress across the web. What I am saying is that non-technical users need to be better educated.

I think we as custom theme creators have a responsibility to kindly inform our clients or potential clients of the difficulties in using and modifying premium purchased themes. I would go so far as to say that, if we take our work seriously, we should politely refuse to work on premium themes.

In turn, I refuse to use a pre-made theme on anything that I personally put my name on. I don't own any and won't purchase any. Even the base theme I use is a modified version of _s from the Automattic team. And the theme I use here on Ghost was custom-made by me.

But in the end, WordPress as an organization dictates standards for a reason. If they were followed more closely by everyone, how much more vibrant would our not-so-little community be?