Looking into the future of WordPress

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Ian Stewart put up a great post this week called The Future of WordPress Themes 2009. He put up a post in the same vein last year, and it has now become a welcome regular look into what theme developers see happening with WordPress in the upcoming year.

Theme Shaper logo

By the way, aren't those clouds behind Ian's logo awesome?

Since my response would have been a bit too much to add to a comment field, I’m including my thoughts on the topic here at Theme Playground. First, though, my favorite responses from Ian’s list:

  • Andrew Rickmann talked about theme developers working together to benefit the whole of the WordPress theme community (something I’ve definitely all about), as well as themes built with HTML 5 beginning to rear their heads.
  • Andrea of WPMU predicted that 2009 will be a year when WPMU and BuddyPress themes will make a jump forward in popularity and producation. After developing sites with WPMU and BuddyPress, I personally can’t wait to get a decent BuddyPress theme together for release. She’s dead on target with that one.
  • Justin Tadlock has predicted a high number of niche themes being developed in 2009, as well as widgets beginning to break out of the “sidebar”.
  • Ashley Morgan spoke out on the ethical/legal implications of “premium” themes (I hate having to call them that), which is itself a discussion I think worth returning to another day.

Now, I’d like to add my own thoughts to the mix.

A move toward simplicity

Few would argue that the last couple years of WordPress development have focused on using WordPress to develop magazine themes. I would say the peak was at the end of 2007, when this blog was rocked by all of the traffic when I posted my list of the best magazine themes around.

I believe we are seeing a new trend, and that this trend will continue through 2009. This new trend is a move toward simple, even minimal blogging themes meant to direct attention toward the content, toward the signal, and away from all of the noise.

I can say I’m happy to see the trend slide away from magazine themes, as those sites tend to exhaust me. I’m more interested, anymore, in personal blogging themes and those which offer ways to display so called “lifestreams” using WordPress.

Child themes, kinda

I understand and appreciate the excitement behind the concept of child themes. (If you don’t know about them, this post by Ian should give you a nice taste of the idea.(

I think of child themes sort of the way I think of theme options pages, nowadays. This time last year, themes with options pages integrated into the WordPress dashboard were prevalent, but not by any means universal. Part of this is due to the high learning curve to adding something like theme options to a theme. In a similar way, using child themes is, at this point, not quite exciting enough to pull over a large number of developers. Most of the blame can be pointed toward WordPress, which would need to give child theme developers a bit more control than they currently have, for many developers to begin using this method.

That said, if we see WordPress (maybe even with 2.8) begin to allow child themes to have a bit more control than they currently do (adding styles and functions) by letting child theme files take precedence over the parent theme files, I think we’ll see a lot more people getting behind this method.

Variety of niche themes increases

Even more so than theme frameworks, which are pretty popular nowadays, I think we’re going to see a high number of niche themes popping up this year. While it’s nice to be able to work from one theme and have the flexibility to do whatever you want, a lot of people are going to want something a bit simpler that won’t require such a learning curve in order to make it do what it wants.

Now I’m clearly talking about blog users more than I am actual WordPress developers, here. Developers might be willing to use a framework, and that’s fine. But I’m seeing a number of non-technical people step out onto the web and start blogging with WordPress, and they won’t have the first clue how to customize a framework to suit their needs. In those cases, they are going to be interested in a powerful theme that already operates/looks/behaves the way they want. Thus, niche themes will increase in popularity and production.

Auto updating of themes causes problems for so-called “premium” theme developers

The talk seems to be that the next version of WordPress (2.8) may incorporate a theme browsing and updating ability in a similar way that was introduced for Plugins with 2.7. If that’s the case (and even if it isn’t, it won’t be long before WordPress adds this in) I can see it putting some theme developers in an interesting predicament, namely those who sell themes for profit.

Finding decent WordPress themes has always been a problem for WordPress users. (This is part of the reason I’ve been doing my best to list collections of awesome, useful WordPress themes.) While incorporating the themes directory directly into the Dashboard may help with this for some, the problem still remains: many of the best WordPress themes cost money, and aren’t free. Only free themes are listed in the directory.

What we’ll probably see is developers of premium themes taking time to create free GPL compatible themes for releasing using the themes directory, so as to get their names out there with more WordPress users. Perhaps once people see the great work from them, they will be willing to leave the Dashboard and check out the premium theme developer’s other work. Only time will tell.

Taking a breath

I think you can probably see why I didn’t drop all of this into Ian’s comment field! While I would definitely appreciate anyone’s comments on my own thoughts here, definitely leave your own thoughts on the Future of WordPress Themes in 2009 over at Ian’s post.

11 thoughts on “Looking into the future of WordPress

  1. … if we see WordPress begin to allow child themes to have a bit more control than they currently do … by letting child theme files take precedence over the parent theme files

    You can do that now in WordPress 2.7. Try it out, it’s awesome. 🙂

    • I haven’t experimented since 2.6, so I’ll have to give it another go. We’ll see if it’s quite as flexible as I would want it to be 😉

  2. Don’t think the automatic updating for themes will be a problem for WooThemes, since I’m not particularly keen on it anyway. Fact is, plugins are meant to be updated easily, because a user shouldn’t customize a plugin’s core files; but a theme is meant to be customized. So unless you use a framework + child theme, that’s not gonna be viable.

    • Just missed your comment, Adii. I’ll have to agree with you here. The only users that would benefit from theme updates are those using frameworks or those not customizing their themes. It seems like this would be more beneficial on something like an MU setup than a typical WP install.

      I’d rather not see the functionality added to WP at all. It’ll probably cause more problems than it’s worth. Users would probably inadvertently overwrite their customizations.

    • Good point, Adii, I hadn’t considered that. So it seems that, in order to do it well, the WordPress team would have to also provide people with a way to make customizations to their theme that will last past theme updates. I haven’t heard anything about this, so perhaps the theme updating won’t be as significant for as many users as I thought.

  3. Ian beat me to the punch. Yeah, you can already do that in 2.7.

    I see a lot more people getting back to simple, minimalistic looks that focus more on content, but in a recent survey to my theme users, the majority of them still wanted a news/magazine theme. I don’t really see why people are so obsessed with them. They’re usually crowded and hard to read. The focus should be on content instead of fancy gizmos and gadgets.

    I actually tried to explain this to a user recently that told me my Hybrid theme should have video, audio, and a featured content gallery sections. It’s hard to explain to some that the Web is largely a text-based medium. If you hide away all of your text, then what’s really left?

    I definitely see a trend toward simpler themes, and I hope that trend continues throughout the year. But, I’m afraid we’ll still see users adding loads of stuff to their sites that detract from the content.

    • I hear you Justin. Can only hope for simpler themes in the future. What always disappoints me about “magazine” themes, with photos, audio, video etc. is that most people aren’t actually creative images and videos and audio. So what you end up with is their content (which can be very good) stacked next to subpar stock graphics that just aren’t interesting, and like you said, clutter up the page.

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  5. developers of premium themes taking time to create free GPL compatible themes for releasing using the themes directory

    I think Automattic have a policy of barring all premium developers from the official directory, regardless of the licensing of the individual theme, precisely because they’re worried about them taking this route. You’d get people offering a free limited version through wordpress.org and then advertising the ‘pro’ theme with extra features and support on their website.

    • I think you’re pretty close to spot on. What may be most frustrating about it, for everyone making themes, is that there doesn’t seem to be any clear guide to what is allowed and what is not allowed. Having something like this around might dissuade some of the GPL/premium theme discussions that take place every now and then.

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