Is the writing is on the wall for the WordPress theme as we know it?

The essence of a WordPress theme is: layout (templates) + style = presentation. 

The template and global style editing features of the site editor are soon going to provide users with tools to create and manage these elements visually in their WordPress back-end. Community initiatives like the pattern directory present opportunities to enrich these features exponentially.

So the question emerges: If I have the power to tailor the individual components that make up a “theme”, supplemented by curated suggestions from the community while doing so, then what purpose does a single bundle of predefined layouts and styles serve? 

I imagine a world where the idea of themes being discrete entities that you install and switch between goes away. Instead, the “default theme” in WordPress is nothing more than a generic version of the templates and styles necessary for the most basic site to operate.

On top of this, flows exist in the UI that enable users to perform bespoke activities, like creating a different layout for a specific post category archive.

In such a flow the user would be presented with contextual layout options that are pulled in directly from the pattern directory. Oh, you want to create a new 404 template? Here are dozens of neat options to choose from, ordered by popularity, rating, you name it. This feels much more powerful than having to accept whatever your theme supplies – especially as it’s unlikely that you chose your theme because of it’s 404 template!

Styles can work in a similar way. Imagine selecting an appealing color palette from a community driven library, directly in the Styles panel of the Editor, and having that cascade across your entire site. Ditto for typography. These tools can all combine in flexible ways to get you 90% of the way toward your desired design destination. 

Naturally you can fine tune everything on a per-block basis as required, and even choose to contribute your creations back to the color, type, or layout directories, further enriching those libraries.

On that note, maybe new economies begin to emerge – imagine paying a small tip to install a comprehensive type scheme devised by some A-list design studio. An App Store for style?

No doubt it would still be possible to export your templates and color / type styles as a single theme bundle. But in a world where folks have freedom of expression on a much more granular level, I wonder about the utility of such a package.

When you’re able to easily apply different aspects of design to a single post, a single template, a site header, or even a single block, the concept of a “theme” starts to feel much less monolithic. I’m excited to watch these features interact as they grow and evolve.

Zooming in and out of style management in WordPress

As you may know, the “Global Styles” feature is coming to WordPress, and will enable users to control a variety of visual design options from their Dashboard.

I’ve been exploring what folks might see if they were to access this feature from the Appearance menu. It’s a tricky problem to solve because users need intuitive and direct access to style management from the main navigation, but the feature must also be summonable in various other contexts like editing a template or a post in a way that provides a live preview of changes. In those latter scenarios a sidebar is utilised:

A design concept for the Global Styles sidebar

When accessed from the main navigation, it seems sensible to reuse this sidebar for consistency, but this presents a question – what do we display on the “canvas”, and how do we provide a preview of style adjustments?

Since a mosaic view of templates will be required for the initial site editing release, displaying these on the styles screen could be an affective way of providing a holistic preview of style edits on-the-fly. If there are many templates, an affordance to zoom in and out for different levels of fidelity could be a neat concept to try:

Perhaps even as one zooms in to a single template, the styles sidebar could adapt to display style options for the specific blocks utilised in that template.

The nice thing about persisting with the sidebar implementation for this screen is that the UX can be replicated on other mosaic views. If in the future there are visual management screens for things like patterns and reusable blocks, one could also access global styles from there and see a contextual preview.

Obviously there is a lot still to ideate on here, but I thought this was a fun concept to share.