What The Heck is going on with Themes?

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.

Want a Premium theme?

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.

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.

Although that might just happen here in the not-too-distant future.

Templates: The Future of Themes?

Seedlet and its Offspring

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:

X is a minimalist theme, designed for single-page websites. Its single post and page layouts have no header, navigation menus, or widgets, so the page you design in the WordPress editor is just the same page you’ll see on the front end.”

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?).

Try & Customize

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.

Twenty Twenty-Two

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.


Some Thoughts

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

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Published by JenT

After 4 years hand coding HTML and CSS websites, 2 years setting up and running WordPress sites, I launched my first website on WordPress.com back in 2006 and never looked back. Since then, I’ve helped other WordPress.com site owners navigate through the ever-changing WordPress.com ecosystem. Find me at wpcommaven.com

12 thoughts on “What The Heck is going on with Themes?

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Thiago. I miss themes like Oxygen and Mystique, and even themes with a bit of whimsy, like Something Fishy or Vintage Camera. They each had their place and fans. Oh dear, I’m reminiscing about the good old days…😊

  1. You touched on two things that constantly annoy me about WP (of late).

    I came on WP because of the ease of use and I liked the “look” of the theme I’d chosen. We can argue the utility of updating themes to suit one’s mood, but I argue that it’s not good for the readers if they are constantly faced with a changing theme — ElBob and I had many conversations about it — and, in fact, I stopped following some blogs that changed themes on a whim.

    Regardless if one is locked into one look or likes to “spice things up” on occasion, what WP has shown is that I cannot count on maintaining (or getting) a look I want. Hopefully, they will keep my current theme (it took me a long time to find a replacement for Twenty Ten), but the point is that they are not committed to listening to users.

    The other thing (besides the consistency of the format I choose) is that I now spend a lot more time creating the content (and with inconsistent success) than I used to. The process now involves more steps and has inconsistent rules on top of not working the way they claim.

    The equivalent thing happened with almost every piece of software I have ever used . . . namely, it gets “improved” to the point that it’s bloated, nearly unusable, and no longer serves its original purpose. Microsoft is one of the biggest offenders, but so is every other software producer out there. (Topaz Labs and DxO are two that maintain some sort of continuity of purpose in their development — there may be others, but I can’t think of them right now).

    This usually happens when people coding something get enamored with bells and whistles and forget to ask users if that’s what they want (I’ve been involved in software development back in the 80s, and you have to constantly remind programmers of the aim of the program). I mentioned it before . . . I’m much more interested first getting things done quickly, and only then in embellishments … provided they don’t slow me down.

    Anyway, hope the irritants go away, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. And, if it’s not clear, they are much more focused on making money, so look to free blogs going the way of the dodo or discouraged by virtue of uselessness and too much aggravation (you hear it here first).

    1. Also keeping in mind that a theme just falls away when viewed on mobile or in AMP or in an RSS feed reader. All that’s important in the end is content. If my memory is correct, this site has used 3, maybe 4, themes since I started it in 2011 and I only change to keep it future proof. That’s about the only good reason I can think of for changing themes.

      There’s been a massive move from simplicity to complexity of use and not just here. In that you are entirely correct. Maybe it’s time to look at moving to Tumblr? Oh, wait… 😁

  2. Does WP.com pay for Premium themes each time as and when they are used by a user, or does WP.com make an overall payment to the theme developer on a rolling yearly subscription no matter how many users are using the theme?

    If the latter then I can see that with full-site editing, WP.com would like to suggest that the full-site editor makes Premium themes redundant. And it saves WP.com some money.

    I am not sure which are Premium themes. I am well enough acquainted with the obvious ones that are not, but not so easy to tell with the others. Here is the list of themes I can see and that I have available on my main site:

    Blank Canvas, Russell, Zoologist, Quadrat, Geologist, Bantry, Laporte, Sigler, Antin, Bingley, Glen, Miller, Pollard, Paxton, Jones, Bradford, Baker, Blockbase, Twenty Twenty-One, Spearhead, Seedlet, Twenty Twenty, Barnsbury, Dalston, Maryland, Rivington, [Maywood], Balasana, Shawburn, Alves, Exford, Rockfield, Stratford, Coutoire, Morden, Stow, Hever, Leven, Twenty Nineteen, Business, Photos, Radcliffe 2, Apostrophe 2, Altofocus, Intergalactic 2, Twenty Seventeen, Independent Publisher, Button 2, Losestar, Dyad, 2 Pensscratch 2, Baskerville 2, Dara, TextBook, Libra 2, Ixion, Karuna, Rebalance, Shoreditch, Scratchpad, Rowling, Revelar, Escutcheon, Orvis, Toujours, Canapé, Pique, Twenty Sixteen, Sapor, Franklin, Colinear, Blask, Lovecraft, Publication, Libretto, Edda, Argent, Cerauno, Gateway, Snaps, Canard, Gazette, Afterlight, Nucleare, Coherent, Cyanotype, Lingonberry, Saga, Satellite, Resonar, Scrawl, Lyretail, Hew, Sobe, Cubic, Wilson, Boardwalk, Twenty Fifteen, Together, Plane, Capoverso, Sequential, Editor, Cols, Eighties, Sketch, Celsius, Edin, Isola, Sidespied, Pictorico, Espied, Illustrator, Hemingway Rewritten, Tonal, Quadra, Circa, Singl, Hexa, Syntax, Bushwick, Twenty Fourteen, Twenty Thirteen, Ryu, Sidekick, Confit, Twenty Twelve, Twenty Eleven, Varia

    I currently have Maywood active.

    1. Hi David, I was not privy to the licensing arrangement WordPress.com had with Theme Authors for using their Premium themes. I do know that in 2020, WordPress.com removed the vast majority of Premium themes and only reinstated them after the Theme Author updated their theme for use with the Block Editor. That was the Premium Theme Extinction Event I wrote about back then. There were only 83 or so Premium themes left available after themes were updated.

      You said, “I am not sure which are Premium themes…” None are. Everything that appears in the Theme Showcase today is a free theme and that is true of the themes appearing at WordPress.com Appearance>Themes as well as at WP Admin Appearance>Themes. It might be that FSE makes Premium themes redundant, but I wonder how the average and new user of the platform will cope with making their own theme.

      1. Just to be sure – are you saying that none of the themes I listed in my comment are Premium themes?

        As for new users – I think they will be guided to use the wizard that presents them with those pre-formatted layouts for Contact/About/Privacy/ etc.

        I played with a couple of those and you have to know a bit about WP in order to navigate the back end to edit, or remove the bits you don’t want, without wrecking the page.

      2. That’s correct. Every one of the 129 themes you listed in your earlier comment is a free theme.

        You’re likely right about new users being guided to select one of those themes, although if you read the bit about “Brice” in my post, you’ll see where there can be some confusion at new user signup.

        The whole block-based theme page setup is laid out on each theme’s Showcase Page, for those themes that are Block Editor Styles. I haven’t’ been through the new user tutorial at wordpress.com/learn for a while. Will be interesting to see what exactly is mentioned there about theme setup.

  3. I don’t even see Brice in the available themes.

    Some themes are children of other themes, like Baker is a child-theme of Seedlet. Is that why you didn’t see Brice when you clicked through?

    As you know, I barely keep my head above water with understanding how WP.com interface works – Calypso and all that confusing stuff.

    1. You won’t find it because it isn’t a theme. It’s a page layout that’s available at sign-up. What one sees in the Appearance>Themes dashboard, however, is Maywood Mayland. You can also find the same page layout if you navigate to Pages>Add New and then click to the “Home” page options. It’s the “Modern site layout with metrics and call to actions” (sic) that can be added to any site/theme.

      Check out the “Add New Page” dialog. Themes and templates/page layouts are becoming intertwined.

      Overall, it’s clear to me that we’re continuing to move from simplicity to complexity, and that’s fine for those who want it. Not everyone does.

  4. For the first time in 11 years I changed the theme of my website. I chose 2020 and I’m really enjoying it, because I can use the full potential of the block editor for the pages, and, at the same time, with regard to posts, the theme has a minimalist look, which values the content, and I like this a lot.

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