Twenty Seventeen was the first default WordPress theme I’ve had the pleasure of working on, alongside the David Kennedy (developer and project manager) and Laurel Fulford (developer extraordinaire). Default themes are the themes that come preinstalled when you start a new WordPress site. A new “Twenty” theme has been released every year since 2010.
The design that would eventually become Twenty Seventeen went through a couple iterations. At its earliest, it was a one-page restaurant theme that we didn’t feel comfortable tackling yet at Automattic. Once we figured out a good way to do multi-page homepages, I brought it back up and it was suggested I turn it into a business theme. This theme would eventually become Lodestar, a yet-to-be-launched theme on WordPress.com. Another couple rounds of iteration to introduce a more interesting grid, sharper typographic system, and the idea of video headers brought us to where Twenty Seventeen is today.
I started designing themes for fun in 2013. I’d dabbled a bit in theme design prior to then, but it was 2013 when Kelly Dwan (my partner in life and development) and I released our first theme collaboration, Flounder. Kelly and I have collaborated on a couple more themes since then, and I’ve also designed a number of themes that were then built by the WordPress.com theme team.
My desire to create themes stemmed from a perceived lack of well-designed themes in the WordPress.org theme directory, along with a need to blow off some creative steam and do side projects. I think designing themes can be a good exercise for any designer, regardless of your current experience. Here’s why:
1. You have total creative freedom
While I’m providing a service to the community by releasing themes, my motives are selfish. Picking up theme design as a side project was my way of taking control of my work. Because designing themes is a hobby, and everything I work on is released for free, I don’t need to let the needs of a particular niche or market constrain what I work on. I can pick any kind of blog or site to design a theme for. I’ve frequently used theme design as a means to explore a particular design style or trend that I might not get to use in my everyday work.
Most of us don’t get to control the work we do every day. Whether we’re designing for clients or working on internal products, the problems we’re trying to solve are being dictated by external forces. Sometimes, though, you just want to cut loose and design something for yourself.
Being able to control your own constraints also means you can focus on designing what you’re good at — which is a welcome relief if you’re being challenged every day — or focus on the skills you need to improve. You can keep the scope small and really focus on particular details. Because the theme is all about you, you don’t need to compromise. Unless, of course, you start butting up against the constraints of WordPress. Which brings me to…
2. You learn more about the systems you’re designing for
I thought I knew everything about using WordPress before I started designing themes. Hooo boy was I wrong! Designing WordPress themes taught me more about the platform than several years of using it — and designing client sites — ever did. This became especially clear as I tried building my own themes, and working with developers to build themes. They’d say, “Hey Mel, what about attachment pages? What about archives? Why don’t you ever send me comment styling?” I also learned a lot about the different workflows that WordPress supports, many of which I’d never encountered on my own.
When you’re designing a theme, you need to be prepared to design edge cases, or at least work around them. Just because you think you’re designing a theme for photobloggers, doesn’t mean only photobloggers are going to use your theme. You learn to tailor your theme designs to cover multiple content scenarios. For the most part, themes need to be content agnostic. They need to be flexible enough to accept almost any kind of text, media, or embed your users can throw into them. The more complex your theme, the harder time you’ll have adapting to those kinds of scenarios. This kind of thinking will make you a better designer.
Designing WordPress themes also helps expose the gaps in WordPress, where the platform falls short. Twenty Seventeen really hammered in that WordPress can be challenging for creating multi-section homepages. We ended up with a homepage-building process that is underpowered and overly complex because WordPress doesn’t provide a better way yet. When you have to start creating extra options in your theme to support multiple designs and scenarios is when you start to realize where WordPress is falling short. As a product designer working on both WordPress.com and the core WordPress software, this knowledge is invaluable.
3. You get to see your work in the wild
It is super cool to stumble upon a site that’s using one of the themes I’ve designed. This kind of random interaction has totally made my day before. Twenty Seventeen already has 100,000+ active installs. That’s a lot of sites to stumble upon!
With this kind of power comes responsibility. The hardest thing for me to personally accept when I design a theme is that I have no control over who uses that theme. Twenty Seventeen is going to be installed and activated by default on all new WordPress sites for at least a year. That means literally anyone using WordPress has the immediate option to use my theme. I have to accept that Twenty Seventeen could be used by anyone who downloads it and self-hosts a site — pick-up artists, ISIL recruiters, birthers — and for anything. There is nothing I can do about this. It is the dark side of Open Source — it’s free for anyone to use or modify, and that really means anyone.
Knowing this makes me all the more aware of how the products I create can help or hinder social progress in the world. The work I do for free could be used by anyone, good or evil. If anything, this inspires me to donate my time and money to organizations working towards a better world. And when I stumble on one of those organizations using one of my themes, knowing they can use it and modify it for free makes everything worth it.
At Automattic, we choose to fight for inclusiveness and openness. Join us.
Mel Choyce is a Boston-based product designer and WordPress core contributor. She graduated from Smith College with a degree in Government in 2010, then went on to work for a few web design agencies and consultancies. In early 2013 she did Fresh Tilled Soil’s Apprenticeship in User Experience, after which she applied to Automattic. She currently works on customization and new user experience for WordPress.com. She blogs at melchoyce.design.