It’s time for WordPress theme authors to step up their block template game – WordPress Tavern

Going through my routine this week, I went through the latest versions of WordPress themes and found a new project that supports the block editor. He even shipped a few custom models. While the design was nothing fancy, it was a solid theme overall. However, after spending most of the day writing about it, I didn’t think I could move forward with the story. Something was bothering me.

It was the same that I have felt with several others lately. There have been too many missed opportunities. The theme had the foundation, the underlying potential, to be more than it was.

The theme had a commercial “pro” version that users could purchase. Almost all of the pro features, however, relied on old-school upselling tactics of additional theme options. The only exception was a block-related feature that will be free as part of the Global Styles component likely to ship with WordPress later this year.

Where were the custom block styles? Where could a user find unique designs? Additional navigation menus, sidebars, color settings and typography options are becoming less and less of added value for end users. It’s probably safe money right now, and I can take the comfort of not taking too many risks.

Theme authors need to start shifting gears. Upsells should come in the form of features that will not be available on the WordPress stock. Right now that means creating unique block designs and styles.

Explore model ideas

Over the past month I have been tinkering with custom models. While I was in the design and development industry for over a decade, what I was able to accomplish with the Block Editor alone – no custom code – and a full block-ready theme, this it’s just scratching the surface. We have much better talent in the WordPress community, and I want to see their art run wild.

It all started with the WP Tavern Jukebox podcast – you should check out Episodes # 1 and # 2 if you haven’t heard them already. Nathan Wrigley, the new host, pushed me enough to get back on design and development to implement some of the features he needed. Over the years, I haven’t worked much with podcasting or any other type of audio. It was new territory for me. Ultimately, the podcast inspired me to think about audio models.

What is possible with the WordPress editor today?

I scoured the web for various layouts, looking for modern audio presentations. Many concepts were impossible for an end user to implement from the editor alone. They would need custom block styles extended from the themes themselves. And, there were several designs that I just didn’t think could be done, but these usually had plugin-territory elements.

However, I found some ideas that I could run around with and create my own. I started with a simple audio file from The Martian soundtrack – I had watched the movie the night before and was on a David Bowie kick.

Unique audio pattern of the soundtrack.

It was simple. Just add Group, Columns, Image, Paragraph, Header, Audio, and Social Icons blocks. I was satisfied with the result and some of my Twitter followers responded positively.

Inspired by the medium, I created an alternate layout. It was even easier by adding Cover, Paragraph, Header, Audio, and Social Icons blocks.

Audio integration pattern nested in a Cover block.

Based on the original model, I built one that used SoundCloud integration instead of the Audio block. I also created another one with a few edits that were aimed more at podcasters.

As I delved into this project, the more I became able to create layouts. I started to understand what some of the limitations were and to pull everything around them.

One of the most problematic areas of the editor is that it does not pass enough spacing control. Therefore, I had to use the Spacer block liberally, something I prefer not to use as it relies on pixel units and puts an extra charge

in the markup. To build some models I had to get a little less purist and just use the tools available.

This change in mentality has opened up other possibilities. I have built a few other audio related block models. They were, again, simple layouts, but I wanted to make them visually stand out with images that end users could add. The goal is to give users one-click access to pre-designed sections, starting points where people can show their own creativity.

The next step was to start thinking beyond the audio models. There is so much more that others can do in this space. I wanted to venture a little more.

Since then I have built several other templates like the following news article header that I would like to use on the tavern in the future:

Design with a cover block, article title on the left and data points on the right.
News or data-driven article header template.

I could share more concepts, but this seems like a great place to stop. The goal is not to showcase my portfolio of patterns. This is to inspire our theme design community in the hope that they will build something much better. I also wanted to show how easy it was to bring up a few patterns. Instead of hours of development, many ideas have been reduced to minutes. This is the power that the block system provides today.

When I wrote about the Block System Creating Business Opportunities for Theme Authors in January, it was a theoretical post. It’s a follow-up that puts it a bit more into practice (without the actual sale, of course).

Imagine, as a thematic company, you create a freemium theme for musicians. You might want to include a few basic templates for users to choose from. However, there are an endless number of alternatives that you can offer as part of a pro package.

I’m sure there is already a theme author / company out there right now with a versatile theme concept in mind that will eventually have hundreds of designs. I can only hope that they have a strong categorization system or that they offer separate packages or imports.

The block template directory is expected to land alongside WordPress 5.8. At first, it will be mostly basic models. However, others will be encouraged to contribute over time. It’s a welcome feature for the platform, but it’s never going to be a perfect match for every theme design. Each theme has its own design nuances. Everyone has different methods of solving problems.

The best templates will come from the theme authors themselves, especially when combined with custom block styles, packaged, and marketed as part of their theme’s experience. Developers can wait for the whole market to catch up or get ahead of the curve.

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About Daryl Huynh

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