Why Aren't More WordPress Theme Authors Creating Block Themes? – WP Tavern

Sarah Gooding
Block themes are trickling into the official WordPress Themes Directory at a slow rate ahead of full-site editing’s debut in WordPress 5.9. There are now 39 themes that support site editing features, up from 28 in December 2021, when Matt Mullenweg commented on it during the State of the Word address.
“That needs to be 5,000,” Mullenweg said. Later during the presentation he said he hopes that WordPress will “have 300 or ideally 3,000 of these block themes” before entering the Collaboration phase of the Gutenberg project.
Why the strong push towards kickstarting the block theme market? The upcoming5.9 release is set to deliver a solid set of groundbreaking design tools in core that will change WordPress website building in a major way. These include editing page layouts with a drag-and-drop interface and a new Global Styles interface for changing typography, colors, sizes, layouts, padding, and other aspects of design.
Users cannot take advantage of all these new features without a block theme. That’s why WordPress 5.9 is introducing a new default theme, Twenty Twenty-Two, that will make it easy for anyone to get started using a block theme. But with just 39 block themes available right now, early adopters haven’t found a lot of variety.
For whatever reason, more than 5 million WordPress users have still not transitioned to the block editor and are using the Classic Editor plugin. This experience is a shadow of what WordPress has become since the block editor made its debut in 5.0 more than three years ago. Even among users who have embraced the block editor, FSE early adopters are few and far between.
Why aren’t theme authors creating block themes to have their products become some of the first on the market? WordPress Themes Team Representative Ganga Kafle jumped into this topic yesterday, asking why theme authors continue to make classic themes instead of getting on the block theme train.
Dear theme authors,
Why you are not submitting block themes in WordPress as you submit classic themes on a regular basis?
What are the reasons behind it? Please comment below. #WordPress #block #themes
Responses showed that theme developers have a variety of different motivations for holding out on building block themes.
“I asked some local agencies here in Cape Town, and some of them indicated workflow – in that they were extremely efficient at creating sites with ‘their’ theme, and making a new block theme would eat into profits,” Automattic Theme Development Team Lead Jeffrey Pearce said. “They are waiting to see block themes ‘mature.’”
Once 5.9 is released and FSE themes are officially supported, agencies will likely become more motivated to update their workflows to develop block themes more efficiently. During this in-between time, it’s easier to maintain the status quo, but now is the time to get prepared to hit the ground running. Once users know there is more to WordPress, they won’t want to be limited by a classic theme.
For some theme developers, it’s a matter of not having the skills yet.
“There is a learning curve but I expect more and more people will start building and submitting block themes,” WordPress consultant Krasen Slavov said. “I am personally eager to experiment and learn, but since it is a totally new way of building themes and we all need first to pay the bills, this should be in my spare time.”
WordPress developer Sallie Goetsch, who said she builds themes for clients and not for the WordPress directory, is also eager to make the jump into FSE but has the same learning needs.
“While I definitely plan to switch to FSE, there’s a lot for me to learn and experiment with before I’m confident enough to use it in production,” Goetsch said.
Other theme developers cited difficulties keeping up with the ever-changing landscape of FSE theme development.
“We can’t keep up with the changes,”CSS Igniter co-founder Gerasimos Tsiamalos said. “It’s miles away from offering something other than dead simple themes. [There are] too many inconsistencies to streamline.”
Due to the nature of their day-to-day work load, some theme developers do not perceive early adoption of FSE themes as a practical move at this time.
“We’re very happy using blocks for posts, but block enabled themes don’t give us the flexibility we need to build pages at the speed required,” Designs43 agency responded. “And there are too many changes to keep up with also. We tend to use a fairly basic theme and put customizations into the child.”
“I guess the missing flexibility is a killer feature for theme authors,” WordPress theme developer Jessica Lyschik said. “It‘s very easy to bump into things that just don‘t work at all or yet.”
The demand for block themes is not easy to measure. A conservative estimate of active installs of FSE themes hosted on WordPress.org is ~3,000 sites, based on the stats for the small number available. Once the world is introduced to WordPress 5.9 next week, that number is likely to shoot up overnight.
“We have a few free FSE themes and working on a premium one,” WordPress Theme shop owner Ana Segota said. “I love themes are more design now and they are easier to use but it’s still a long way. We need to find a way to educate users about the new way of building websites and also it’s hard to follow all the changes.”
Although block theme development is still in its infancy, there are a few educational resources for authors who are ready to take the plunge.
Marcus Kazmierczak published a brief introduction to building block themes, which links to helpful resources from the Block Editor Handbook. Most notably, these include an overview of block themes, how to create a block theme, and a guide to Global Settings and Styles (theme.json). Carolina Nymark has also published a quick guide to creating block themes on fullsiteediting.com. If you’re looking for a starter for building block themes, Justin Tadlock has a few recommendations in one of his recent Ask The Bartender posts.
I will be creating them, but the rapid development and unstable and ever-changing state of the new editor is making me wary of committing any time to this until the official new version is formally released.
Problem is that FSE is still very beta and for first look block themes can be used only for simple blogs, because they cannot include php templates.
Well, currently we are migrating all our premium features to blocks. And it takes a lot of time. Also, I don’t understand what is the reason to remove Customizer for block themes. Block theme json file can include only design styles, but Customizer is not only for design, we use it to control many important parameters.
Problem is that FSE is still very beta and for first look block themes can be used only for simple blogs.
Respectfully, I have to disagree. Here are three sample sites we built with Frost, which is a (free) FSE theme:
https://frostwp.com/venture-capital/
https://frostwp.com/small-business/
https://frostwp.com/night-mode/
Also worth nothing, we are just getting started. One theme. Infinite possibilities.
One beta-level issue: try using a touchscreen to close the navigation on any of those sites. It’s currently not possible without either reloading the page or selecting a menu item. This bug has been present in Gutenberg since at least May 2021 when it was first reported (it’s since been fixed, reintroduced, and fixed again for 5.9—fingers crossed).
This isn’t the Frost theme’s responsibility to fix but not having a functioning navigation is a deal-breaker. How to handle this in the meantime? Add a bug fix in the theme and test against future WP releases to see when the fix is no longer required? Remove the WP-provided burger/overlay solution and roll your own? These small but critical edge cases all start to add up pretty quickly to increase the maintenance burden for a theme developer.
The navigation close button sort of works when I tested those sites on mobile on both Android and iPhone. I say sort of because a light touch seems to do nothing but a very slightly longer press does close the navigation.
Interestingly when I install Frost on one of my own test sites, the navigation close button works perfectly with only a very light tap. Don’t know what is different in the setup on those sites mentioned.
Hope this helps.
Issue:
– narrow down desktop browser width
– burger appears
– click burger
– close icon jumps somewhere else
Same remark as to why removing Customizer for block themes, even though as I’m typing this, this consideration is no longer on the table – to tell how fast this goes.
More than simple blogs can be already achieved with FSE fortunately (e.g. the Blocksy themes).
Looking at commercial theme directories, there don’t appear to be a huge number that focus on Gutenberg, either. It’s been a very slow transition away from themes that bundle page builders instead of blocks.
With block themes, I think the technology will need to mature. It seems like things are changing rapidly. I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting one into production yet.
Right now, it seems like there isn’t much incentive for theme developers to jump on board.
I think Ganga’s question might be a bit premature. WP 5.9 hasn’t even launched, and there are already 39 block themes live in the directory. Three more are in the queue, and Twenty Twenty-Two is on its way. Launching an overhaul of the entire theming system with what will be 40+ themes is far more than I expected.
I feel pretty optimistic about those numbers, especially with the noticeable uptick in the past month.
If we don’t see an increased number of block theme submissions in the next few months, that might be problematic. I’d love to see the Themes Team keep a separate stat line for newly approved block themes during their meeting notes. That way, everyone can see how they are stacking up against classic submissions.
Now, I’m putting on my theme author cap. I started building a block theme sometime last year. I worked on it for at least a couple of months, but I had to put it aside for a few weeks because of other priorities. When I came back to it, so much was broken that I was simply not motivated to keep up with it.
That’s one of the prices of building on alpha software. Things change, and you have to keep up with them (for theme businesses, this cuts into your resources). With everything being more stable now, I might just pick up my theme project again. And, I hope to see others jumping on board.
Thank you for the nice comment, Justin.
As you said my questions seem a bit premature, however, this type of discussion will create indirect pressure or motivation for making block themes. I am not expecting more numbers, but I wish regular theme authors can spend their few hour’s time making block themes as a part of an experiment as well.
And themes team will start mentioning the number of block theme submission and their stats on weekly updates and meeting notes.
I built around 15 client themes since WP 5.0 launched and then took a break from WordPress completely for most of 2021. This was after a decade of strictly WordPress development work. I’m starting this year cautiously optimistic about a return with the release of WP 5.9. My hope is there’ll be enough functionality and flexibility in this release to once again build projects with longevity baked-in.
WordPress used to feel like a stable base to build on top of: I could receive layouts from a designer and feel confident there was an efficient path to realise whatever unique functional & presentational elements were required for a specific project. WordPress was a “dumb” engine waiting for theme-specific CSS/JS and whatever else to be applied.
Post 5.0, this freedom disappeared with the bundling of block styles in core. I refunded a client in full for the first project I built around the block editor after making the mistake of leveraging core block styles as a base to build on and watching their long-term maintenance costs spiral upwards. Those styles have improved vastly since the early days but I strongly believe that, unless a design is originated in the block editor, a theme developer is still best served bringing their own style sheets to a project. Almost every block-based theme depending on core styles I’ve looked at sits somewhere along the line of having a few layout issues to being unfit for serious use.
Gutenberg is about to enter its 6th year of development. Despite much rhetoric about themes no longer being necessary, it’s themes that have been doing the heavy lifting to smooth over the rougher and unfinished aspects of what WordPress currently is. Looking at the closed issues on the Twenty Twenty-Two theme repository there are many instances of issues avoiding resolution by being passed along to the Gutenberg repository; this is a luxury not available to anyone using WordPress for client work.
This.
Also this… for example.https://dbushell.com/2021/08/03/wordpress-has-a-gutenberg-problem/
I’m trying to keep up with Gutenberg and fse, because it seems clear that this is where the ecosystem is headed, and I expect things to get better over time. I built my first local fse in 2020 only to abandon it because I couldn’t do what I wanted to. I’m now trying to give hybrid themes and block templates a chance but, again, it’s a pain. I’ve also built acf blocks, and a few native blocks. I’m trying to be positive about it, but it’s hard, the documentation could really use some attention, and more examples of how to solve standard use cases “the Gutenberg/fse way”.
And it’s especially odd to then read surprised tweets like the one quoted. As someone asks below – maybe the lack of popularity of the system isn’t apparent to those building it? Or those critisizing it just can’t see the vision that motivates people to contribute to the project, which, I am sure, must be very disappointing to those spending energy and time on the project.
Or a little both. But whatever it is, atm it’s hurting the entire ecosystem, in my opinion. On the other hand, developer discontent with Gutenberg/fse shouldn’t be news to the people running the show, and I think there should be more of an effort to engage, explain, and educate. Such a tweet, to me, is more surprising than the the current lack of fse themes.
I am compelled to reply here – this is spot on. I make my living as a WordPress developer and have done so in a professional capacity for almost 4 years now. Before that, I built the theme for a university’s blog for 4 years, which got millions of hits a year. I’ve been using WP since the early days, somewhere around 2006 or so. I’ve watched it morph into what it is today.
The fact that it is been thrust, warts, bugs, issues, and everything continuously forward without ever listening to its’ developer community is just astounding to me. Developers don’t want what is being done to WP right now – this was clear during the early development. The 2300 one-star reviews on the WP Plugin Directory (and constantly counting) continue to resoundingly reconfirm this.
So, you ask – why aren’t more people adoptinng it? Simple. You’re (the core team developing FSE/Gutenberg) are not asking if we want it. If you did, you’d find out pretty quick that most developers – not “regular users” – don’t want it. While I’ve come around to seeing that Blocks themselves have their place, the rest of Gutenberg – and by extension, FSE at the moment – is a nasty, ill-conceived mess that should never have made it to launch. It’s still not ready, and as long as inconsistencies across the breadth of the project along with the worst implementation of structured data I’ve ever seen (inline everything… and comments… really???!?) means it never really will be.
Gutenberg and the direction of WP for front-end development needs to be seriously rethought. If that doesn’t happen, guess what? Developers will leave to better structured, better coded and better performing solutions. The writing is on the wall.
Learn JavaScript deeply… Without that it’s impossible to create a block theme. Only the more professional developers can keep up with this, I think.
You can create a block theme without writing any custom JS.
I disagree, the less JavaScript in the actual theme, the better.
If the website needs custom blocks, place them in a plugin.
Has anyone explored the idea that the block editor is less popular with WordPress users than WordPress would like us to think?
I notice, for example, the Classic Editor plug-in has more than 5 million active installations.
Elementor, Beaver Builder and Divi got Full Site Editing out the door seven years ago, give or take a couple. Sure, it might not be as efficient as Gutenberg, but there a lot of people that picked a page builder and went with it and have started building out all of their sites using those tools. They have no need to start changing the way their business runs just because the WordPress community finally has FSE. They’ve bought into the niche page builder’s ecosystem that gives them everything they need to build. It’s not easy to walk away from tools we’ve been using for years now.
Sure, I think it’s going be the future, but there is a lot that needs to be built before I start recommending that people start using Gutenberg to build out my whole site based on it. Actually, it has to offer something better than these ecosystems offer for us to start switching.
I have yet to have a client come to me asking for Gutenberg or a Block Editor based theme. They don’t care. They want something that’s stable and don’t really care how it’s built.
*Using the classic editor is not a sign you don’t like Gutenberg or that it’s not popular.
I love Gutenberg and can’t wait to fully use full site editing but I do have classic editor installed on one of my sites that was built with elementor.
I don’t want to be using elementor since it’s inferior in many ways but I’m too lazy to switch an existing site to Gutenberg. That’s probably going to be a common theme where existing workflows do a good enough job so many will avoid Gutenberg.
Converting a elementor page to Gutenberg blocks is actually simple enough since elementor doesn’t use shortcodes but then you have to make sure the block editor is similarly styled and has similar functionality to elementor.
Base Gutenberg blocks can handle tons of functionality/designs, I only create custom blocks if I need something specific and also custom styles but let the theme global styles take care of the rest.
Full site editing is going to be able to handle alot of useful cases.
For example if you need a different header or footer for a landing page, legal pages, category, etc..that will be simple to do without needing to do a deployment!
Converting a elementor page to Gutenberg blocks is actually simple
How do you use animations and especially responsive settings of Elementor in Gutenberg? They are not existant in Gutenberg.
There are many plugins for Gutenberg which extend options. Greenshift animation builder, Qubely, Stackable, Kadence blocks.
But I agree that core blocks are very limited. No responsive options at all, even simple spacing and gaps can be not available
I think the question should be broader. Where have all the theme shops gone? I think step one is to get more people creating themes. We as a community have devalued themes to the point (through bundling them with hosting or crazy “theme club” deals) where people can barely change anything for them.
If you overlook the commercial ecosystem I honestly can’t see why anyone would put a theme in the WP.org repo. You have long wait times and cumbersome reviews. Not to mention the terrible theme previews and lack of any marketing options. That’s not even taking into account the lack of curation and visibility issues.
I think framing this as a Gutenberg sucks or FSE isn’t ready isn’t really the issue., there is something more central wrong. It seems like the core team’s hope is to use the field of dreams strategy. If we build it, they will come. I don’t care how good your documentation is or how many examples you have. People aren’t going to make themes for fun. You either need to help them make a living or at least get enough installs to make it worth their time.
Let’s fix all the issues with the theme repo that have been going on for years. Let’s find a way to help theme shops not only find users but make a little money. Let’s stop shaming people who try to charge for their services. Open Source is not free as in beer, but rather free as in free speech.
Let’s also not hope for the best and rely on others to populate the ecosystem. Let’s get a little bit of that sweet VC money from someone like WPEngine or Automattic and we can employ/train a whole never generation of themers as well as add hundreds of themes to the ecosystem.
Regarding the comment above about learning JS for block themes: in fact you don’t need to learn at all, you only need to know and combine blocks into patterns and style them, pretty much basic css and html. Regarding why people are not addopting block themes is because the fact that is still to early and they are still afraid of Guttenberg. On the other hand, after developing a block theme I found it hard to overwrite block styles unless rewrite them completely. Other thing that I did not liked is the in-line style attributes and huge markup for those duotones. I’ve coded some extensions to remove everything in-line and combine all of the blocks css into 1 style enqueue. I did the same thing for the svg combining all of them into 1 with multiple filters. Besides this I’ve liked the performance optimizations of block themes and the fact that you can conditionally enqueue all the assets, in fact I’ve made it to enqueue css per class used into className attribute. The theme is fast as a beast, so I honestly have no idea why there are only under 50 themes before WP 5.9, I can only love it 😄
I keep classic editor cause my multilanguage plugin isn’t compatible with blocks (qTranslate-X) and I have some plugins which adds buttons to the classic editor.
Classic Editor wasnt that bad.
I’ve never made a theme so take what I have to say with a grain of salt. As a developer that is still learning design, creating a theme has always felt like a big undertaking.
It requires a solid understanding of design and aesthetics and also having a particular user/audience in mind while building a theme. That’s before getting into code.
I think block patterns are an easier entry point compared to creating a full blown theme. I may not have the vision for a theme and all of the blocks required to make it cohesive, but at least I could create a single block pattern that’s aesthetically pleasing and contribute in that way.
However block patterns still have their own challenges. There doesn’t seem to be clear patterns on how to support responsive design with block patterns. If you’re trying to use core blocks to build patterns you get mixed results when trying to make things like typography work across breakpoints. The other issue is that block patterns are only shown in the context of a single breakpoint, so when adding a block pattern to a page it’s not always clear how it will look across breakpoints.
Overall I think block themes will grow but it will be a slower start until best practices are established
Overall
Ha ha, That is a good question. I am still exploring but I guess this could be a possible answer :
Here’s how you create a Block Theme : You create block based content, group them, save as re-usable block, export and then save in a template. If I am a customer I would pay $10 for such a job. There is no leverage to make money here.
So unless you create your own custom set of blocks, custom functionality in plugins a theme is as good as an HTML template. And there will be “Mega” 1000 blocks in one package plugins which will come up on WordPress.
I created my first Block theme. Honestly, I am not satisfied. I felt all my learning of React, WordPress, API and framework gone to waste.
It’s astounding to read surprised tweets like the one quoted in the article. WP teams are so far removed from the needs and realities faced by site developers and builders it’s frightening.
I have submitted a block theme to the WordPress Theme Directory, but there aren’t enough design tools in the Site Editor for it to be useful for most themes. I noticed this when making Ballyhoo Blocks. I was trying to emulate the Ballyhoo theme as much as I could, but whilst I could emulate most of it, it was only because I wrote some CSS that it looked functional. (For example, there is a lack of an option to add padding to navigation bar items and set the appearance of the Menu button on mobile.)
One thing I am concerned about is support for “classic” themes, which are used to run all of my personal and client’s websites. I personally find it a lot easier to build a “classic” theme than a block-based one, and I don’t think this will change. It’s also easier to integrate with plugins and I am also confident in that the design of the website won’t suddenly change after a Gutenberg/FSE update (as has sometimes happened.) When the only person editing the website is myself or my client, I don’t see a point in using the Site Editor.
Blocks are not yet mature at all and for maintainability is more easy to have the template as code and not from stuff in the DB that require parsing and involves more performance.
Also, we are talking to build a website, usually they don’t change so much so all this customization is not needed when you have an agency that do the template to you. It is needed when you don’t have someone for you that is the Wix/Shopify user target.
If you are using WP is to do a website that align at best what you need.
Perhaps in time, themes will become optional and the FSE will be all that’s needed to create a site. Choosing a theme will no longer necessary and realizing later that a theme isn’t a good fit may become an old memory. Themes have often been the most restrictive part of WP while filters, hooks and plugins have been amongst the many sources of flexibility.
Nobody in the professional wordpress space has any interest in full site editing or themes. We are building all our sites from scratch, and we are all full blown wordpress devs – as such we would prefer to code themes the way we always have. We don’t want our users to be able to update anything but content.
+1 exactly this. Our WP clients have one or more author or editor role account with individually adjusted capabilities and a closed envelope with credentials for a full admin account for emergencies or if they want to contract somebody else.
Those clients will never see any settings for colors or typography or other things which can affect the CI in frontend. Most don’t even know that they use WordPress to post their press releases or process job applications or similar.
Those clients also will never be able to run the site on their own even with the best FSE, they have other core competences than building websites.
I agree completely with this. The core WordPress dev team is completely missing the way a lot of professional companies use WordPress to build websites for their clients. Our clients just want a great looking website where they don’t have to worry about messing up the design when they update content. We don’t use blocks or anything like that when we build our sites because we build each theme from scratch and keep the design in the theme. The client just needs to login in and interact with the customized WordPress admin (via Advanced Custom Fields Pro plugin) to simply update text and photos. They don’t have to worry about layout or design and this is how they want it. This whole push for FSE and block themes is going to alienate these professional companies because we feel like WordPress is ignoring the way we, and our clients, want to use WordPress.
I agree with this answer. WordPress 5.9 FSE feature is a like WIX page builder. Most of the clients don’t like to edit the layouts and they just really want to edit the content that’s why ACF and classic editor is most useful. I don’t understand why they pushed this gutenberg. This should be a third party plugin. Auttomatic should adopt ACF and focus on creating a custom fields which is more likely a DRUPAL or STRAPI.IO. This is so sad because some of our wordpress dev switched to DRUPAL because of this wordpress update.
Common, guys. Your users are not required to use Site editor, you can hide it if you want. You can build all blocks for your clients and provide them also ready templates (if they break something, so they can revert back). But I think it’s good option that users can change anything on site and extend it with thousands of blocks, patterns, etc without requesting developers. And developers will still be required, because users still will need some extended blocks. Also in most cases, they are too lazy to configure site. FSE is just an instrument and it’s not forcing to do something for your clients.
I will add that the lack of a ready way to include custom fields in block templates is a definite issue for sites that use CPTs that rely on them. I also think we won’t see a huge uptick in the number of block themes (in the repo or anywhere else) until the UI to create a theme entirely from within WP is complete.
I have just released a new FSE theme on WordPress.org https://wordpress.org/themes/elyn/
Hey, Ben,
Your theme is beautiful! And fantastic for many simpler sites. Folks, check out Ben’s super-fab theme! Thank you, Ben!
The goal of “Everyone should be able to build and customize a website” is commendable.
But as a website developer who needs to be able to build a perfect website then let clients edit content while keeping it perfect, Gutenberg and now FSE makes my hard job 100x harder if not impossible.
Exactly this.
WordPress used to be the CMS with which we developers were able to pretty easily create websites for clients. Clients who themselves shouldn’t have technical knowledge and still able to manage the content well (custom post types, custom fields, etc). And not mess up the layout/design! Even with some basic PHP knowledge you’re able to create the most diverse themes with any functionality. Using existing plugins, building your own or coding some templates. That made it so popular with developers. Developers made WordPress big.
With Gutenberg and FSE the direction is completely different: “let’s make a self-hosted Squarespace/Wix”.
One problem is that it’s much more difficult to create more complex templates/pages. The easy things (text next to an image) are easier, but the more complex things are much more difficult or impossible.
Another problem is that in my opinion Gutenberg and certainly FSE gives clients too much power to mess up the website.
And there is of course the transition problems.
I think it may be a bit premature to be seeing a big uptick in block themes in the org repository, but it’s not premature to ask the question.
After all, block theming is not yet available in core. When it is, we should see block themes starting to trickle into the repo. At what point will the growth start to curve sharply upwards? Well that’s the million dollar question. When some of the bigger templating plugins such as WooCommerce properly support FSE, that almost certainly will help.
Every FSE theme I’ve seen or tested so far has a CLS problem. Including WPTavern.
Did anyone else notice this as well?
This is bug of Gutenberg. I can’t believe that this was added to release version.
https://github.com/WordPress/gutenberg/issues/38385
Please explain to those of us who don’t know what CLS is. Thank you.
Please read https://web.dev/i18n/en/cls/
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