Frankly speaking, there’s so much to cover here, let’s just dive in and see where it takes us. Please keep your Best Speculation monitors activated.
The WordPress.com Great Premium Theme Cull of 2021
WordPress.com has retired all remaining Premium themes. This means they are not included in the Premium or Business upgrade plans and, indeed, are no longer mentioned as a feature of those plans or available in the Theme Showcase.
If you activated a Premium theme on your site as a part of one of those plans, you can continue to use it, but should you activate a different theme, you’ll no longer have access to the Premium theme. The only exception here is if you bought the Premium theme separately as a standalone purchase. In such a case, if you’ve changed themes and now want to revert to the Premium theme, you’ll need to contact Support for assistance.
I’m still trying to grasp the reason for this change, but it is not clear to me. If it were a question of block compatibility, that opens the question why free themes that aren’t entirely compatible with the Block Editor are still available in the Theme Showcase.
Essentially this means that anyone wishing to use any theme other than the free themes currently available in the WordPress.com Theme Showcase, 120 as of today, will need to upgrade their site to the Business plan so they can install a 3rd party theme. If that’s the intention, it’s disappointing. I want to hope that an alternative “something” is in the works, but I have no special insight here. Stay tuned. I certainly am.
UPDATE January 2022: Sometime towards the end of 2021, WordPress.com quietly removed all retired themes that were previously available in the WP Admin Themes dashboard. This means there is now the same number of available themes in both the WP Admin and the default WordPress.com Theme dashboards.
The Future of WP Themes
All the block editor style themes currently on offer on WordPress.com have a static front page that defines them (the exceptions are the earlier “Twenty-something” themes, prior to 2018), with attention to color, typography and menu placements. Navigate to the standard Posts page (whether called News, Blog, Causes, Recipes or something else) or single post view of any of those themes and they are, for the most part, blandly similar.
Looking at the Add New Page dialog for Blog pages, each of those suggested layouts are Pages that include a Blog Posts Block or something similar that leads to the single post view. (This site’s front page is also using one of those same layouts.)
More importantly, while we can change the look of a Page or Post with blocks, we can’t change the way it functions. As a stunning comparison, look at the Altofocus theme, which was released in 2017 and click through to look at the demo site. I don’t think there’s another comparable, recent theme offered on WordPress.com today.
WordPress themes in general are going through a quantum shift with the Block Editor and full-site editing (FSE), but as someone who would rather concentrate on her content, I admit I like working within the structure of a ready-made theme. I don’t always want to design each page or post I write (especially knowing it all gets stripped out when your followers read your post in an RSS feed reader or AMP on mobile). If I’ve spent my time researching and selecting a theme, it’s because I want my theme to take on the overall look of my site while letting me fill in the details.
Give me the hanger to support my funky designer shirt, but don’t make me design and make the hanger, too.Tweet
Although that might just happen here in the not-too-distant future.
Templates: The Future of Themes?
If you’ve spent any time recently in the WordPress.com Theme Showcase looking at the new offerings based on the Seedlet theme, you’ll see that all are one-page landing pages whose related Showcase pages lead with the exact same description:
Regardless of the individual name given to each one, are these full-fledged “themes” as we have come to know them? To me they look (and behave) like page templates in the “Add New Page” dialog, and if you navigate to that dialog, you’ll see some of these new “themes” under “Link in Bio”. You can also find them under Patterns in your Editor space.
What’s also discouraging to users trying to select a new theme for their site is that these “theme” demo pages are so minimalist, they don’t offer a preview in the demo of “single post and page layouts”.
Don’t make me think! Show me what can be done with this theme or at least show me a preview of my content in that theme with “Try & Customize” or “Preview.” On more recent themes, that might be a bit harder to find and might not work as one might expect (what about that static page?).
In WordPress.com view, click “Live demo,” then click “Try & Customize” in the top right corner of the pop-up window that appears, which then loads the Customizer. Alternately, you can click “Info”, then “Open Live Demo” and then “Try & Customize”. Or if you are in Classic View, simply click “Preview” to load the Customizer.
Adding to user confusion when starting a new WordPress.com site is being asked to choose a design that later can’t be found in the Appearance>Themes dashboard or the Theme Showcase because the design is a custom Page layout based on an existing theme. For example, if I chose “Brice” at site creation, the theme that appears in my Appearance>Themes dashboard is actually “Mayland“. What?
And that is not even taking into consideration WordPress.com users who are still struggling with the Block Editor itself.
The new WordPress default theme, Twenty Twenty-Two, will be bundled with the release of the next version of the standalone WordPress software (5.9), currently scheduled for December 9th. This quick demo is certainly interesting and inspiring, but I’m not sure if users will find it substantially different from what is on offer already in terms of block-based themes or Patterns.
While new features being incorporated in standalone WordPress are typically introduced here first (for testing), default themes may take a bit longer to arrive as they need to be adapted for the WordPress.com environment.
Reading through my above post, you might have detected just a smidgen of irritation. Site owners need a level of stability and confidence that their interactions with the WordPress.com platform will allow them to do what they came to do, which is write and publish content without surprises. And there have been quite a lot of surprises over the last 2 years. It’s also understandable that bugs happen when updating a behemoth the size of this platform (and the WordPress software as well), but because of the multitude of recent changes, that has gone up as well.
Even though the WordPress.com Terms of Service says this (my highlight):
License. By uploading or sharing Content, you grant us a worldwide, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, and non-exclusive license to use, reproduce, modify, distribute, adapt, publicly display, and publish the Content solely for the purpose of providing and improving our products and Services and promoting your website.
I don’t wonder if it isn’t (long past) time for WordPress.com to move willing and interested users to a dedicated beta test group numbering in the thousands. At least they will have the benefit of knowing they’re contributing to the open source WordPress project as well as providing direct feedback as a willing partner rather than creating confusion and ill will among WordPress.com’s 10’s of thousands of users.
It’s just a thought.
Changes to Widgets
When I started this post, I’d intended to delve into the recent changes to Widgets, but this post is quite long already and a week overdue. This past fortnight has been filled with good news (helping a friend design and launch their website) as well as bad news (losing a member of our family’s older generation).
Let’s continue next time. Widgets really deserve a post of their own.
As always, the information in this post is correct as of publication date. Changes are inevitable.
Featured photo by Konstantin Mishchenko on Pexels.com