I started designing and developing WordPress themes over a decade ago. I like hand-coding themes from scratch using PHP, HTML, and CSS.
I'm also someone who doesn't always deal well with change. Although, I do generally like learning new things. For example, I jumped on the Gutenberg block editor band wagon right away. I like it quite a lot and made sure all my commercial themes at the time were compatible before WordPress 5.0 was released.
After attending several sessions about block themes and full site editing at Word Camp U.S. 2022, I decided to dig in and learn about both.
My Experience with Block Themes and Full Site Editing
To learn more, I headed over to Carolina Nymark's site, Full Site Editing. This site is a great resource and includes a full site editing course for theme developers, which I dove into.
I don't have the best track record with online courses. Often, there's too much reading and not enough hands-on practice. So, I'll be honest that I didn't finish the full course but I did work through most of it.
I did appreciate the examples that were provided and I built out the full example block theme.
After that, I downloaded a bunch of other block themes and dug through the code. I practiced building a few practice block themes of my own. I also tested out the full site editor. Overall, I spent around 20 - 25 hours learning my way around block themes and full site editing.
My Takeaways about Block Themes and Full Site Editing
I don't hate or love block themes or full site editing. I do have some strong options (like I do about most things) and takeaways as follows.
Lack of Documentation
Documentation for block themes is severely lacking. Carolina's site is a great resource that she's constantly updating but it's a lot of information for one person to cover.
Documentation of blocks on WordPress.org seems to be largely focused on how to use blocks rather than what makes them work on the back end. When I tried to build out more complex layouts, the lack of documentation quickly became frustrating.
One suggestion I read was to add a block in the block editor and then copy and paste the block code into the theme code. As a developer who like to hand code, I don't like this approach. I understand that's a personal preference. And there could still be much better documentation so if you use this method, you're able to understand what you're copying pasting and how to edit it, if you so choose.
I'm sure more documentation will be forthcoming, I just wish it was already available to those who wish to work with block themes now. As much as they were hyped at WCUS 2022, it feels like a premature launch because of the lack of documentation.
The File Organization and Template System are Great
I've always enjoyed a good organizational paradigm and wished there were stronger standards in WordPress themes. As someone who "inherits" sites built on a lot of different commercial and custom WordPress themes, it can be a real time suck when I have to dig my way through overly complex themes with unclear organizational scheme.
I feel like the file organization and template system can potentially help make theme file organization more standardized and consistent.
I like the HTML templates, use of patterns and parts, and I even like the markup and code for blocks in the HTML files. I also think the way blocks are being implemented can help lead to more consistency with HTML elements and CSS selectors between WordPress themes, which I think is another potential future bonus in my book.
I Hate theme.json
I really like the concept and goal behind theme.json. I tried really hard to like theme.json, but it's pure chaos. The format of JSON is not human friendly. I can happily hand-write 5000 lines of CSS from scratch. But I don't want to touch theme.json ever again.
Some tools are starting to emerge to help developers work with theme.json, like ThemeGen. I think these sorts of tools will be vital for designers and developers who don't want to take a "code free" approach to block theme design.
I Am Not the Target Audience for Block Themes and Full Site Editing
I realize the ultimate goal with block themes and full site editing is to be able to design and develop themes without ever having to touch code. Since I'm a person who enjoys working with code and who loves CSS, I'm really not the target audience for this evolution of WordPress.
I tried creating a design fully in the full site editor experience. It's way too fidgety for me. I'd rather write a few lines of code or markup than fiddle with a bunch of settings in a visual editor. But then, I've always disliked page builders. Why struggle with a bunch of settings in a non-intuitive UI when I can create something much more quickly with some HTML, PHP, and CSS?
I can see editing a few settings in the full site editor but designing a site entirely in the full site editor, as it is now, is not something I want to personally experience.
Final Thoughts on Block Themes and Full Site Editing
I appreciate and applaud the idea behind both. The current lack of decent developer resources frustrates me and makes the launch and hype around block themes feel rushed and premature.
I'm really happy I'm no longer a theme designer and developer, frankly. Removing code from WordPress theme development removes one of the things I most enjoy when designing a new theme.
Overall, I think block themes and full site editing have great potential for the most common users of WordPress, to make the platform more user-friendly. And I'm interested to see how things evolve over the next few years. Personally, I'll be sticking to my PHP-based Genesis themes for a while. 😉
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