WordPress Themes of the Future

The Evolving nature of themes

There’s been a lot of discussion around the future of WordPress themes lately due to the ongoing evolution of the block editor. Now that Gutenberg is expanding into other areas of a site (apart from post content), the definitive end of WordPress themes as we know them today is coming. But is that really so terrible? No, I don’t think so.

I’m thrilled WordPress is leaning away from a developer-driven site experience and towards a user experience focused on… users. But what do these changes mean for future of WordPress themes? I’m not sure anyone has a definitive idea, but I do have a couple thoughts on a few directions WordPress themes could take in the near future.

A parent theme within WordPress Core

WordPress themes inherently share lots of markup: headers, main content divs, footers, etc. Sure, there are variations – particularly within headers and footers – but if you were to look at themes within the WordPress Theme Directory, you’ll find that the core of a theme rarely varies significantly. With that saying, what if WordPress core provided a base set of theme files, essentially becoming the “parent theme” for a new type of future theme? This core “parent” theme would provide the foundation for common theme markup (blogroll/archive views, loops, page content), basic formatting, block styles, comments, headers, footers… everything you’d need for a basic theme framework. Themes of the future could leverage this core parent theme by essentially acting as child themes do now: styling and overriding when necessary.

But let’s not stop there.

Designing with CSS custom properties

Instead of directly overriding styles, what if this core parent theme was creatively styled using CSS custom properties with fallback values? Themes of the future could simply declare their own set of style properties to be applied on the front-end, as well as within the editor – automagically. At GoDaddy, we’ve laid out the foundation for such a system within our upcoming theme, Go. This methodology made it easy to “skin” markup to create unique styles with minimal effort. In its barest form, themes of the future could comprise a stylesheet, a list of CSS custom properties to set the visual design of a site.

A world of same websites?

I think not. With the right amount of thoughtful CSS custom properties for theme developers to use, I see WordPress themes maintaining a firm sense of design personality. Personality is already super relevant in theme design, now that themes are becoming less about page layouts, headers, footers, and widgets – and more about style and personality.

Themes will undoubtable be different. But we are creative beings. We’re good at figuring out how to express ourselves, using just about anything. Check out all the different designs I spun up using just WordPress, CSS custom properties within the Go WordPress theme, and CoBlocks:

Starter templates created with the Go WordPress theme by GoDaddy
All built using core WordPress, the Go theme, and CoBlocks

Sure, there are plenty of considerations to review to base WordPress themes on a design system like this, but there’s obviously something here to think more about.

So why does all this matter?

It matters because this new “parent” theme within WordPress core could be tweaked whenever necessary. Imagine a future where WordPress sites are constantly meeting new markup and accessibility guidelines, supporting future core features when they’re available, and providing a stable page editing experience – all regardless of the active theme. Themes could actually follow DRY. Developers wouldn’t have to include all the “fluff“ every theme needs. In theory, these themes of the future would hardly need any modifications to work with future versions of WordPress at all – if any. Sustainable, one word that’s not particularly top-of-mind when it comes to themes – today.

Although a bit cliche, this sort of future theme would likely “just work”. Ironically taking a full circle back to the origin of WordPress theming, where simplicity and design ruled. So what do you think about the future of Gutenberg and WordPress themes?

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