WordPress Themes Aren’t Just Pretty Packaging

I’ve been having some cool email discussions these past few months with folks who originally found the site through this article. We’ve been talking about the potential of WordPress as a CMS and what can be done with projects like Mimbo. I’ll give some more background. Check this paper if you are a fan of WordPress Technologies!

Evolution of a theme

Last spring, I noticed that Talking Points Memo had abandoned their traditional blog format for a layout resembling major news/magazine portals like NYTimes and Portfolio.com. Instead of the same old vertical linear format, the content was now dispersed across a grid; thumbnail photos were used creatively in place of excerpts; more columns made room for neatly summarized subsections – all powered by the ordinary blog software. TPM was the first blog I’d seen move in that direction and it inspired a lot of ideas.

I experimented more with WordPress’s template tag system and it became obvious a “post” could be presented outside the usual title-date-author-content format. I realized a “post” just meant a vessel of information serving whatever creative purpose you assigned it. It’s like the old myth that we use only 10% of our brains, I wondered if developers were only harnessing 10% of WordPress’s potential as a blog, a magazine, a news portal, a CMS, an image gallery manager, a guestbook, or whatever we want it to be.

This summer I wrote two posts on the subject, in June (”In Praise of WordPress Template Tags“), in July (”In Praise of WordPress Template Tags, Part II: The Magazine Layout“), then in August released a magazine-style WordPress theme called Mimbo which was just revamped. The whole process led me to look at WordPress in a very different light.

WordPress as a cms

By the time Mimbo came about, I was already disillusioned by CMSs like Joomla and Drupal. No disrespect to the programmers in those communities, but they should have recruited more CSS and UI folks to help out with integration. Both platforms are big and clunky and technical, with too little separation between data and presentation. Without that last detail, the skinning of data is difficult. What both platforms lacked was a consistent query post and parameter system more like WordPress’s so that designers can control and style data more freely. WordPress had already proven itself superior in all these areas we design/CSS snobs care about, so why not repurpose it to act more like a CMS?

So that’s what I’ve been doing a lot more of. None of my clients are technically bloggers; they’re medium and large-sized businesses who need custom design plus a back-end to power their “news” (blog) items, calendar, contact form, thumbnail/slideshow gallery, and the ability to edit flat content pages – all of which can be accomplished through WordPress if you’re willing to get creative with template tags and install the occasional plugin.

So while some developers will argue it’s still not a proper CMS, others will go on using WordPress the “wrong” way just as musicians find new sounds by using instruments the “wrong” way.

Themes as mini-applications

Mimbo was released as a ‘magazine theme’ though it was definitely designed with a CMS-feel in mind. My intention was that it function as its own mini-application within the larger WordPress framework, not just as pretty packaging tacked on afterward – this is one reason it looks so stripped down compared to most people’s perception of a “theme”. The purpose was to soup up WordPress’s engine and leave the paint-job to you.

For this reason, I’ve lately been using the Mimbo theme as a starting point for new WordPress projects the same way developers use Blueprint as their baseline CSS. In that sense, Mimbo is it’s own kind of blueprint, already pre-configured to display a navbar, a sidebar, and a variety of content modules that any medium/large site would need.

I say tomato, you say vanilla

I recently read something by a blogger who begrudged the current crop of magazine themes for being too plain:

“Many of those I’ve seen typically have very sparse visuals and zero style. As a matter of fact, some of them just look like a bunch of columns spanning a page. I don’t consider that design. In some instances, the term minimalist has been taken a bit too literally.”

Mimbo is a design the author might consider distastefully vanilla, but that’s understandable – it’s a reminder that “theme” is not a concrete term everyone agrees upon. However attractive, the designs in those “free theme” galleries are beginning to fall short of many people’s needs. If we keep our expectations open, the more WordPress’s limits can be pushed and themes can provide more than just a few colors and a masthead image.

Check out something like Frieze. Now take away the photos. You’re left with some grey boxes and columns and modest typography.

Yet to my eye, it’s an elegant site that serves its subject matter well. NYTimes has always been as vanilla and gridded as it gets, but that’s because the emphasis is on content and organization, not graphical punch.

Going forward

My selfish hopes are that:

Theme designers will dig deeper to provide for users who want more than a traditional blog layout.

The themes they offer will spin off into other tools that challenge how WordPress is used.

The results will influence Automattic to continue gearing WordPress in the direction of a true CMS.

What are your expectations for WP themes?

An undergraduate and avid netizen, Suman is the youngest member of Loudhere family. She manages the News and Current Events category here. Also she employs her SEO skills to make this more searchable.