I propose a Theme Design Review Team


A weekly editorial, from Ryan Imel the editor of WPCandy

Anyone who has ever submitted a theme to the WordPress.org Theme Directory has, in one way or another, run up against the theme review guidelines. I have. While it can be a pain in the butt sometimes (Why must my theme use widgets again? Hulk smash!), it’s understandable why they are there. Standards need to be maintained, or else craziness will ensue. (See also: cats, dogs, living together.)

It’s important to keep the quality of the code up, and to meet expectations when it comes to how a theme behaves on the backend. Sure, okay, I can buy into that.

But why don’t we have a set of guidelines and a review team for theme design?

First hand experience

A month or two back we launched something called Theme Finder. It’s really cryptic, what it does: it helps you find themes. We’re still improving it, but one thing that we do weekly is add new themes. Typically 50-100 each week. And our favorite thing to do is add free themes to it. After all, who doesn’t love free WordPress themes?

Like anyone else, we save hard things for last. Sue us, we’re human. And there are a few directories of themes that we put off at first, because the size was a bit daunting. One of those directories was the WordPress.org Theme Directory, which is currently sporting about 1,295 themes. That’s more themes than we have in Theme Finder right now. That’s a lot of themes.

But we’re not a group to shirk hard work (at least not forever) so recently we rolled up our sleeves, cracked open the .org directory, and…

We were completely, totally underwhelmed.

After compiling all sorts of awesome themes of all shapes and sizes, all colors and prices, we’d like to think we have a pretty good eye for solid theme design. And the themes in the directory, we learned, are mostly awful.

A special kind of awful

I’m sure the code of the themes in the directory are all top notch, or at least up to code. But I wouldn’t know, because you couldn’t make me click download on 90% of those theme pages. I won’t do it. The designs, the concepts behind the themes, are just awful.

It’s not just the design, but the originality that’s the issue. So many themes are clearly just tweaks of Kubrick, Twenty Ten, Sandbox, or another widely available (and perfectly fine) theme. Beginning theme developers should still use these themes to practice, but perhaps they should keep the downloads to only their own blogs, instead of WordPress.org.

There are a few really well done themes in there. But these are the exception, not the rule.

But maybe they should be the rule.

Maybe we need a Theme Design Review Team: a crew of highly qualified theme designers (perhaps volunteers from commercial WordPress theme shops?) to screen and approve theme submissions for quality and originality.

Just think about what that could look like.

I'm not saying this is what we need. But if we do, then I get to be the sexy one. Yes, Simon.

If it’s important that WordPress.org users can download and use themes without trouble, it should be important that the themes they are getting will give the best experience to those user’s sites as well.

A brave new world

Instituting this sort of review team and process would no doubt result in the removal of the majority of themes on the WordPress.org directory. But that’s okay.

Which would you rather have: 1,200+ themes that you couldn’t be paid to use, or 100 highly original, cornerstone themes?

18 thoughts on “I propose a Theme Design Review Team

  1. Problem with design is where to set the minimal level?
    You could probably eliminate a lot of themes by just doing a compare screenshot search. When reviewing have a image compare function built in that finds all the themes that looks like this one.
    Quite a few look very similar in layout so combining them into one with different color schemes would be better.

    Also enough with the standard vertical postlisting,right sidebar, image header and a nav bar. Its the same basic layout over and over and over again.

    • I don’t think every single theme has to be completely different from all others in the directory, but some level of originality would be nice.

      If I have to look for a blog theme for a friend of mine, it sucks but the last place I would look would be the directory. I’m not sure exactly what steps are needed, but I’d really like it to be reversed. I’d like to always be able to confidently start my search at the directory.

  2. The requirement that a theme must have widgets to be in the directory really pisses me off.

    I don’t really think that a design review team should be able to keep themes out of the repository – what looks hideous to me might be dead useful to someone else. But a showcase of themes in the repository, the top 1% best designed themes getting some well-deserved attention, would be nice.

    • You’re right, design is subjective, at a certain point.

      But aren’t there objectively bad designs? Just thumbing through the directory, I’m convinced there are πŸ™‚

      That’s not to mean anything against those theme developers, not at all. But if we’re looking to have themes in the directory that are the best representations of WordPress themes (which is, I think, where the “must have widgets” rule stems from) then shouldn’t design play a factor as well?

  3. Couldn’t agree more. It seems that no matter which debate it isβ€” theme directory standards, theming best practices, GPL/Not GPL, premium vs. free, to framework or not to framework, etc., etc.β€” there’s something that is missed every time: The value of *design*.

    WP site owners look to a theme to provide design, visual structure, and an identity to their site. The design works hand in hand with their content to communicate. It would be nice to see the larger WordPress community have a renewed focus on WP site design.

    • Great point.

      I’ve been meaning to ask theme shops, and since you’re here: have you ever looked into listing your free theme “Gadget” in the theme directory? What do you think about that idea?

  4. Speaking from the perspective of the WP Theme Review Team, we have really been staying away from the aesthetic values being presented in Themes submitted for inclusion in the WordPress repository.

    My opinion is that Theme “design” is more personal taste and preference, keeping in mind I absolutely agree that some themes in, and submitted to, the Theme repository have truly and remarkably captured their own “special kind of awful”; and, yet, others are still very pleasing to the eye and provide their own usefulness.

    I’m actually glad we do not have any criteria regarding the “look and feel” of a Theme aside from its functional use of the core code. As far as I see it, the end-users will be the best Theme design reviewers an author can have; and, their commentary will be best noted by the Theme’s download statistics.

  5. I’d actually quite like to *remove* some of our old themes from the directory now. They’re a little embarrasing and we haven’t done any fresh development on them for a couple of years now.

    And that’s a problem for any directory – what was cool three years ago is no longer impressive. New entries are slowly lost in the noise. Keeping it fresh is a harder problem and that’s where sites like this can help – they allow folk to find new and interesting work that would otherwise be missed by the community.

  6. I agree!! There are so many WordPress themes — mostly the free ones — that I would never use! I love freebies over the ones you pay for, but I would rather spend some $ on a great WordPress theme than use a free one that’s just…awful.

  7. Why not just have a “Wild-West” section, and a “Cultivated” section. Then you don’t have to delete any themes, and you don’t have to discourage new authors either:

    “OK, congrats, you’re in… but next time you could make the High tier if you follow these blah blah blah…”

    The Wild-West would be the repo as it is, some gems, but mostly filled with junk. It’d be good for archive/history purposes as well as “just-starting-out” newbie themes. Highly specialized themes, not good for general-use, but GPL and maybe neat for picking up some unique code would be good in Wild-West too. (I’d say the only guild-lines for this area would be safety/spam related ones.)

    Want the shiny, crisp and clean stuff? The stuff good enough to make it onto the .com? Go to the Cultivated section.

  8. Objectivity on each theme for the design review team would be difficult to do, and also imperative for the legitimacy of the repository. From my limited understanding, specific guidelines were built in to the current theme review system partially in order to establish a method for objective acceptance.

    Establishing criteria for a design review team would require very specific elements, but what would they be? That the theme renders the same in every browser? That contrast is at proper levels? That images aren’t grainy?

    And what about bare bones themes? A skeleton theme could be a great theme that’s meant to not look good until someone digs into the style in the child theme. Do these have to go in an entirely different category?

  9. I like Ken’s idea of a cultivated section. I think the biggest problem with the WordPress.org theme repo is that it’s really difficult to find a good theme. OK, fine you can see the ultra-generic list of most popular themes and you can see themes that are new or have been recently updated, but it’s really hard to find anything else.

    Searching or sorting by attributes is a good idea in theory but a terrible one in practice (not suggesting attributes not be there, just saying attributes alone don’t make for discovery).

    Having a cultivated/featured/highlighted section could really do a good job of unearthing some of the better themes and also give some invectives for theme designers to submit to the repo.

    I’m with you Ryan — the overall design quality of the majority of the themes in the repo is absolutely abysmal. Any time I have to do a roundup of hot, free WordPress themes I always cringe because it means shuffling through the repo, downloading stuff, trying it out and then trying to rinse out my eyes, lest the burning continue.

  10. Ryan,

    This is a very interesting point. I too support this, and if you need assistance, then I am willing to volunteer as well. We should talk more about this at WordCamp Louisville and perhaps send Jane Wells a group of us who would be willing to do it.


  11. It hasn’t been mentioned yet, but the reason there are 1,200+ horrible themes in the repository is simple – SEO and backlinks. The reason that there are so many that are just tweaks of 2010 or other themes is simple – SEO and backlinks. The official WP theme repository is google PR8, and the top theme pages are PR6-7 because of that. Even if your theme never gets high pagerank, if it only gets a couple hundred downloads, the backlinks you can get can give quite the boost to a site over time.

    People that do SEO have figured this out, and many (if not hundreds) of themes in the official repository have been submitted by “non-designers”. Some have just sheepishly hacked an existing theme to be different enough to submit, others have garishly paid someone on elance $100 to make something good enough to comply and submit. This explains much of the quality and crap theme design problems.

    What is glaringly MISSING from the official theme repository is the acknowledgement that WordPress does more that BLOGGING. What I mean is, you seem premium sites purposely target niches for using WordPress as a fully-fledged CMS, and the theme repository would not in any way lead you to believe that WP does these things.

    Just look at the “tag filter” currently setup in the repository: color, columns, width, features, and subject? “Subject” only has “holiday”, “seasonal”, and “blogging”. Really? What about real estate, e-commerce, video, microblogging, Q&A, directory, classified, auction, community, small business, medical, forum, and membership type themes?

    The cottage industry of premium themes and plugins has completely been born out of all the things WordPress does NOT do, and companies looking to fill those needs. If the directory was overhauled and a call to action was sent out, free themes would begin to be submitted in all the aforementioned areas (and more).

    I don’t think this would in any way hurt the current premium market – it would only help it.

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  13. I think that the answer to this issue is to have a rating system for themes that includes the ability to easily comment on the theme. The problem with the rating system that is currently in place is that you don’t have any way to see WHY someone gave it the rating they did.

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