What WordPress Themes are really about (and WordPress 4.1)

I’ll be committing code to WordPress again with version 4.1! I made my last big contribution with Twenty Ten and Twenty Eleven where I had a hand in both design and coding. (It was with Twenty Eleven where I was actively contributing code). This time I won’t be working on a theme I designed. Instead, I’ll be helping to bring a design from my friend and colleague Takashi Irie to millions and millions of people. As cool as it is to work on the core WordPress project — it’s the software behind 1 in 4 of the websites you visit! — I think I’m just as excited, if not more excited, to work with Takashi on it.

Yes, he’s a great designer and a great person to work with but more than that he understands what themes are about.

  • How people use them as the foundation for personal expression on the web with a blog.
  • How web developers use them as the foundation for quickly producing websites.
  • How motivated tinkerers use them to build up a small business site — probably their first on the web
  • And he understands how a theme is not just for one particular user or site owner but instead is for the vastly greater majority, the millions of people who see it as just another web site and want an easy to get to and pleasurable reading experience.

It sometimes seems to me that WordPress theme developers forget that last part. Takashi understands all these things and thinks about them deeply. Getting a chance to help make his vision for a first WordPress design experience in 2015 come true is an honour and I’m super-excited for the people who will start publishing with WordPress and Twenty Fifteen.

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Me and Twenty Fourteen designer Takashi Irie

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I’m lucky enough to get to see Takashi Irie several times a year but on a recent trip to London he and I took our photo together with the intention of helping me complete my weird collection of photos with default WordPress theme designers. Takashi is the designer of the super-cool Twenty Fourteen.

You may notice that Takashi and I are both wearing button-down oxfords and navy sweaters. This was not planned but we enjoyed having our photos taken like two boys who had mom and dad dress them up to match. :)

I’ve worked together with Takashi since 2011 and it’s always awesome to see what he dreams up. He’s designed several favourite themes of mine. His default theme contribution to WordPress is available now on WordPress.com and will ship with WordPress 3.8 on December 12, 2013.

Special thanks to Kathryn Presner for putting up with multiple retakes from two ridiculously demanding subjects!

Reid Peifer on WordCamp Winnipeg

Reid Peifer of Modern Tribe posted a great review of WordCamp Winnipeg yesterday. I’m happy to see that he found it “a conference, full of hope, optimism, and promise.” That’s exciting.

I had a great time myself and I’m looking forward to next year. Check out Reid’s review to see what you missed.

Matías Ventura and I — and all the WordPress Default Theme Designers

This year I finally got to meet Kubrick designer Michael Heilemann. Kubrick is the theme that became the default theme for WordPress forever to be known as Default. Dork that I am I got my picture taken with him. My first WordPress celebrity fanboy moment. I’m a theme designer, it happens.

While in San Francisco for An Event Apart I decided to get my picture taken with friend and colleague Matías Ventura. He and I designed the Duster theme that wound up becoming Twenty Eleven, the WordPress theme for 2011. This is us.

Photo by Sheri Bigelow

At that moment I realized I need to have my photo taken with all the WordPress default theme designers. Like a collection. I get to travel the world for work. I love WordPress. And themes. I’m a dork. It fits.

Time to make a list!

  • Matt Mullenweg, WordPress co-founder, founder of Automattic, where I work — this one shouldn’t be too hard. :) He did the “Default WordPress” that was “just a basic layout, with only the bare minimum defined” for WordPress 0.71.
  • Dave Shea, designer of the Classic theme. This one will probably be the hardest. I don’t know Dave at all. He will likely think I’m crazy if/when I ever approach him about this.
  • Michael Heilemann, designer of the Kubrick theme. Done.
  • Me and Matt Thomas. Back in 2010 I got excited about the idea of a new default theme and came up with Kirby. Matt took it and made it look beautiful as Twenty Ten. This one should also be easy. I have the pleasure of working with him at Automattic. There’s probably a picture somewhere of both of us in the frame but I want to get one with he and I posing.
  • Matías and I. Boom. Done.
  • Drew Strojny, designer of Twenty Twelve. This one shouldn’t be too hard either. I’m sure to run into Drew sooner or later at a WordCamp or event. The only hard part will be getting the two of us into a frame. He’s super-tall.

And then next year, Twenty Thirteen. And so on for as long as I can keep it up. Should be fun. Dorky WordPress theme nerd fun. :)

My WordPress Theming Inspiration

I sometimes tell people that it was the Happy Cog Blogger template project that got me into theming. Specifically one blog post about it by one of the designers that made me think, “Whoah! Theming for thousands of people is a really cool design problem that I’d love to tackle!” Of course, I totally forgot what that blog post was and never mentioned it anywhere that was easy to retrieve. Like a blog. This was a full two years before I started blogging so maybe I can excuse myself that way.

Anyway, it turns out it was two blog posts that inspired me. Dan Rubin’s post puts into words something that I still find exciting about theming.

The num­ber of peo­ple who will make use of these tem­plates is astound­ing (it’s already started), and the web is going to be a much bet­ter place for the effort (just think of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of sites that will soon be using well-designed standards-based markup!).

And the trick, according to Dan, is still the same.

Design some­thing visu­ally fetch­ing, but not too per­sonal (the pri­mary func­tion is a reusable tem­plate, which might dis­play many dif­fer­ent types of con­tent), yet indi­vid­ual enough to inspire some­one to actu­ally use it.

It’s harder than it looks.

There’s maybe less excitement in Dan Cederholm’s post about his TicTac template but it’s his concern over the header that I remember the most.

Extra care was taken to ensure the design would be flexible enough for any amount of content at any text size. For example, the header uses a vertical version of the Sliding Doors technique (sliding windows?), where if the Blogger user has a long site title, or if the user bumps up the text size, the header graphic (separated into two pieces) willl “spread apart” to accomodate it.

I thought this was just amazing in 2004. I still do. It’s one of the central concerns of any good WordPress themer. Making sure everything just works for bloggers. It’s never boring.

Ironically, when I got around to finally blogging two years later I never did use these templates. I used Doug Bowman’s Minima template. It’s a design marvel. In 2007 Jeffrey Zeldman called it the Helvetica of web design “magically supporting whatever tone the content provides.”

Douglas Bowman’s white “Minima” layout for Blogger, used by literally millions of writers—and it feels like it was designed for each of them individually. That is great design.

He’s right.

So there you go. My WordPress theming inspiration: 8-year old Blogger templates. :)

Kirby based on Kirby

Why haven’t I noticed this before? The Jack Kirby Museum blog design — running on WordPress — is based on the Twenty Ten theme which itself is based on a WordPress theme I cooked up called … Kirby. It was cheekily named after one of my design heroes much like the then current default WordPress theme was named after Stanley Kubrick. Anyway, that’s pretty cool!