Think. Write. Code.

Questions With No Answers About the Themes Repo

June 10, 2019 • ☕️☕️ 6 – 10 minutes read

This post was originally a [large] reply in the Themes Review Slack channel. It is my attempt at raising awareness about the fundamental problems I see lurking just beneath the surface in the WordPress ecosystem (starting with themes, but not limited to them).

I believe my thoughts deserved a better place than Slack, a place to breathe and refine a little. So here they are.

First, disclosure and context: my background is in commercial themes (Pixelgrade). Me and my team have been hard at work for the past 5 or 6 years in building design-driven, solutions-oriented WordPress themes for creative individuals and small businesses. We deeply dislike multipurpose themes and have managed to stay clear of them, despite the obvious commercial allure. We have always strived to focus everything we do on the final user and what he or she wants to achieve with their site.

Now, to get to the fundamental question: what is the mission of the themes repository? I would say that “providing free themes to WordPress users” is cutting it short and detrimental to WordPress users. Free, well-coded, secure, plugin-free, independent, all-style-no-functionality, accessible WordPress themes are not enough, not in 2019. This is all well and good for frameworks or starter themes, but far from enough if we want to actually help people, not just developers or agencies.

People who wish to set up or maintain an online presence, either for personal pleasure or for commercial interests, have a set of needs, a vision, a set of goals they strive to achieve. They don’t really care about themes, plugins, and not even WordPress at the end of the day. They care about solutions that care about their own needs, regardless if they need to pay or get for free.

I can sympathize (but not agree) with the direction developers, either working as freelancers or in an agency environment, wish to enforce and sustain: our life would be so much easier if these pesky themes stop doing anything other than styling, and leave it up to plugins to provide each functional building block – we are more than capable of choosing the right plugins for the job. If only WordPress was a project aimed at professionals. The last I heard of, it wasn’t – it was about “democratizing publishing” and making it easy for anyone to speak up and own its place on the web.

The themes repository has an enormous advantage in the ecosystem: it is integrated into the core of every WordPress site out there, thus being the de facto place to look for a solution to style your site, in line with what you want to achieve. This advantage can be used for both good and bad.

For good in setting standards of quality and ease of use (code quality is just a consequence), in protecting the (digital) rights of users (and gaining their trust in a virtuous cycle), in educating users about the many ways they can achieve their goals.

For bad in setting low expectations (“the theme preview should look like crap for all themes” 🤷), in pushing people away from WordPress due to convoluted workflows, in focusing on developers instead of users, in not living up to its potential and leave it up to others (with commercial interests) to set the stage (like Envato’s influence on what people have come to think a theme should be).

The theme repository doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is not its own separate thing. It is an integral, core part of the WordPress ecosystem and should live up to this responsibility. The theme and plugin repositories have more in common than they think and should be aligned when making decisions about where to steer the ecosystem. While the plugin repository thinks of itself more like a code repository, the themes one is locked in a constant battle between being a de facto marketplace and a guardian of standards. The two should be closely aligned and rely on each other rather than going their separate ways.

By looking down just on our own “piece of land” we only end up ruining the repo altogether - just look at how “ethically” Jetpack is picking up the slack with its very own “themes repo” right in the WordPress dashboard. Themes and plugins are two sides of the same coin: making sure that WordPress itself lives up to its own mission. Why should themes be so unfriendly towards plugins is beyond my understanding.

Now to the primary debacle: upsells. It is quite prevalent [for me] that upsells are frowned upon by “true” believers. Everyone should be gifting some of their extra time and give [quality] code back to the community, no strings attached, out of the kindness of their heart. The GPL license certainly seems to lean that way, more so than other FOSS-friendly licenses. The last I heard, the generous 70’s didn’t save our world, or we wouldn’t be in the state we are today.

I am all for actors with good intentions working towards the greater good – I consider myself and my team as such, but opinions tend to differ. Hell, I can even accommodate bad actors as long as they make meaningful contributions. But I am very much suspicious to anyone claiming that they hold no self-interest, no personal agenda, just pure, impartial kindness of the heart. Please… even I, the hopeless optimist and believer in people (those who know me will confirm), can’t swallow this – it is just too out there to be practical. I believe in pragmatic actors that are out-spoken, sincere, self-interested, with sufficiently aligned values. These groups are the real world changers, either up or down.

Now back to our themes. Why should it matter if a theme has a commercial version or if someone just created it in their spare time out of sheer passion? Both can be great, and, sadly, both can be crap (coding standards followed and all). Should we focus more on preventing honest individuals or businesses from earning a living or on making sure that users have the best experience possible when they use WordPress? Isn’t the WordPress ecosystem stronger if more people are making a living off of it?

I would think that 70 or 80% of a well designed, tested, maintained premium theme would be preferable, in general, to one cooked up by a developer with some spare time and passion. That is if the repo is after quality, not quantity, after user experience, not “we can’t discuss the design.” The user experience should be the first thing we discuss, in a holistic way, in line with the final goal the user has: solving a problem, not installing a theme.

I agree that the upselling process should be decent, respectful, and, most of all, helpful towards the user’s needs. This should be the standard. If I “force” a user to upgrade just to make a quick buck, then I’ve not lived up to it. But if I recommend a paid solution to one or more of its problems, on top of the benefits he or she already got for free, I would consider that to be decent, respectful, and helpful. WordPress wins a satisfied user, I gain a happy customer, the open web wins a new believer.

Lastly, being the author of a theme in the repo should be a badge of honor, not just a sign of being able to obediently follow a set of (often unclear) guidelines. One should be proud and willing to add it to its CV, to its social media description, T-shirts should be printed (or given away), fulfillment all around.

Second lastly… At WordCamp Europe 2018, in Belgrade, many seemed to speak about the end of the “developer era,” and the start of a new cycle where the WordPress community is open to designers, marketers, community builders… you know, anyone other than developers. I was ecstatic upon seeing that fire gain strength (I am a developer).

But, how could this become a reality when the most attractive thing for a large part of them – the themes aka the stuff you see – is so entrenched in the realities of the past, so resistant to making bold steps towards a more inclusive future? Just about everything floats in a sea of developer “stuff”: from SVN and Track, readme validators and theme checks, to escaping, sanitizing, i18n-ing, a11y-ing, you name it.

How can one explain the fact that the theme presentation page is more basic and, frankly, lackluster than the plugin page? How come the one thing that someone needs to properly assess a theme before installing it – the preview site – was left unchanged (despite countless debates and proposals) for years? I can’t find a reasonable explanation for the life of me.

Let’s assume you are a passionate designer, you heard of WordPress, and would like to contribute. If you sift through the latest additions to the themes repo, what would you think? Is this a place where your work would be appreciated and improved upon? Quite the contrary, with very few exceptions. If you scan through the Themes Review public Slack channel, would you feel you’ve found a welcoming place? A place where you could have a voice, where arguments from all sides are sought after and equally discussed? I think not.

I am the first to admit that what I am describing here is a tall order, challenging to achieve and maintain. It will probably take years to get there (as it took us 16 years of WordPress to get here). It will take a lot of small steps in the right direction. It will take a lot of honest people and businesses to jump in and lend a hand. But if we genuinely care about the future of WordPress and that of the open web, do we really have a choice? From what I see, the alternative would be to let the repository drift away and become obsolete. Some will profit from this, but definitely not WordPress(.org) and end users.

I know that I’ve only raised questions, identified flaws, complained, briefly sketched scenarios. How about solutions, Vlad? I think the WordPress ecosystem and the community that props it are at a moment where good, important questions need to be asked and agreed upon, before possible answers might be explored. Solutions to the wrong questions will only distract or even derail us.

Thank you for reading through all of this. I sincerely hope my thoughts will help move things towards a better place, if only by a little bit.