The secret of simplicity in WordPress themes

I’ve been building WordPress themes for many years. The first free themes I released were tragically bad but they were something. A start. I never really knew what I was doing in the beginning. It didn’t matter though. I knew design and CSS, and that’s all I needed to know to design a grunge WordPress theme.

I started building stuff for WordPress in approximately 2007. The themes I built were typically just ripped from Kubrick and restyled based on my preferred design patterns from that year. I was learning about WordPress, PHP, theme standards, design, functionality, user experience–all the things I needed to know to help others learn and grow in their WordPress knowledge.

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. 

Isaac Newton

Once we started UpThemes, the drive to create great themes was intense because it was no longer a hobby. I was expected to produce professional-grade, rock-solid themes that power people’s businesses. Stuff just got real. I’ll be the first to admit that the first few years were a blur. The commercial WordPress theme market was still young, but it was starting to grow. We were beginning to see products like Headway and Pagelines and others enter the theme space and we started to wonder how these companies could possibly sustain support for such complex products. In addition, I wondered, “How will the customer know what is actually effective for their website? They’re not web designers. They’re plumbers, accountants, bakers, photographers, and lawyers.”

The Push Toward Simplicity as a Feature

Fast forward to 2014 and my team and I have been on a quest to strike a perfect balance between beautiful, functional, customizable, and profitable. With our latest product release (the Personal Blogger WordPress Bundle) I’ve come to realize that the general perception of our themes is that they look damn good but when it comes to marketing, we fall short at proving value to prospective users. Marketing a WordPress theme is difficult because things can get real technical, real fast or you default to talking about the SEO value or social sharing possibilities (hint: themes should be optimized for content, not just SEO or social, those things come with great content). Many customers want to hear things like “better SEO” or “500+ social sharing buttons” or “drag-and-drop page layout editor.” What we should be talking about is producing great content. Website visitors will come, you just have to give them a reason to.

Our themes are a throwback to a time where nobody had 600 shortcodes, 200 widgets, 3 page layout plugins, and integration with every major plugin in the world. For us, the goal is to build something simple, beautiful, useful, and fun to work with. Sure, there’s some complex stuff going on behind the scenes, but the user doesn’t want or need to know about it. They just want a theme that gets out of their way so they can build and customize their site and write their content. That’s what we offer.

Why free themes don’t measure up

Building a WordPress theme sounds like a simple thing, right? I mean, once you’ve got a default theme with all the templates in place and some CSS, you’re all set. Yeah? Sure. If your goal is to have a blog or a simple website that works for you, then yes, odds are you can customize a default theme and achieve decent results. In my experience, though, I’ve found that many free themes simply do not take care of the little things.

This is what customers pay us for–to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it. 

Steve Jobs

Free themes can be useful. There are a few out there that solve a lot of the core problems that many WordPress themes present. The one thing they just can’t compete on is supporting the customer. Our goal is to make our themes easy enough to use that customers don’t actually need one-on-one support. In the rare instance that someone does reach out to us, 9 times out of 10, they’re asking questions about going further with the theme. Those are the support requests I love to see. They’re not asking about complicated features that don’t work or are hard to use. They’re asking how to make a bigger impact with their WordPress site.

When I started building themes, it was about achieving a certain design aesthetic, something that allows people to express themselves through their blog. Over the years, as we’ve added team members and tools and processes and apps, along with a plethora of new devices and tiny things to consider, building WordPress themes has become an all-out war to build the most bloated page layout system or the theme with the most customization options. While there is a ton of innovation, there is also a ton of technical debt and weight on the customer to simply “figure things out” after the honeymoon period is over—that is, the moment they realize their shiny new WordPress theme contains a ton of performance issues and shortcodes that won’t transfer to another theme.

Product Strategy as a Service

Some products are better off simple and small. I think all WP themes generally fall into this category. Content layout and generation tools are great but can also hurt our customers because they don’t know what they’re getting into. The allure of being able to lay out your website all by yourself (no coding required!) sounds like a winning strategy, but the truth is–it won’t make a difference if the user doesn’t understand design or reaching their audience on the web. Rather than offering a cheap alternative to “doing things the right way,” it’s like giving them the tools to perform heart surgery and saying “no medical school required!” Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds?

Part of running a business is being accountable to your customers and building something sustainable for you and for them. At UpThemes, we develop features slowly and deliberately, allowing WordPress time to catch up, rather than sprinting ahead just to say we got there first with a half-baked feature or product. We never want to present something to the customer that we (or WordPress core) will make obsolete in 6-to-12 months. When we build something, it’s meant to last a long time.

Simplicity is a feature. It may not come with a ton of flash or sparkle, but our goal is to build themes and plugins that solve problems, represent people beautifully, and focus them on creating content that reaches their audience. That’s it. It’s a simple goal that has been realized by thousands of customers over the past 5 years of UpThemes being in business.

Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains. 

Steve Jobs

Examples in Simplicity: Journalistic Theme

The theme I’m using on my site right now is called Journalistic. It is a beautiful theme for storytelling. It is also extremely simple. No shortcodes, no widgets, not many theme options, a few customizer controls for appearance (colors, images, welcome text, widget zones). Just enough for users to customize things that won’t go berserk on them later. Some of these things are complex under the hood. But to the user, they’re simple, easy-to-use, and darn near magical in certain instances.

Simple Feature #1: Inline Comments

Thanks to sites like, inline commenting has become a mainstream feature for blogs and news sites alike. We knew we wanted to develop a theme that included this feature but we didn’t want it to be based on a plugin. Why? We felt like the inline commenting experience was so tightly integrated with this particular theme design that it didn’t make sense to add a simple feature plugin to utilize it. We forked the WP Side Comments project and added a ton of small security/design enhancements.

Want to see the side comments feature in action? Go ahead and hover over this paragraph to see a little comment bubble pop up. Go ahead and click it. Leaving a comment is now contextually relevant and easy to see where the best discussions are happening within an article or story.

Simple Feature #2: Unbreakable Color Schemes

One of the troubles with building commercial WordPress themes is customization and color scheme selection. Our color scheme system is what I like to call “unbreakable.” Why? Because during our theme development process, we work very hard to ensure that any time a background color is changed by the user, any text that appears over the top of the background is readable at all times. also does this but uses a different method.

How do we do this? Great question. Our CSS pre-processor uses a library named “Compass” which has a color contrast function to detect the lightness of a color and provide an appropriate contrasted color depending upon your desired result. To quickly sum up how it works: when the background is dark, we use light text. No more worrying about hidden text or breaking your color schemes. We realize customization is necessary and as a result work very hard to make it as foolproof as possible.

Simple Feature #3:

Journalistic uses Aesop Story Engine to add features to WordPress that have never existed before. In addition, we’ve added some very simple features that enhance the user experience of the theme without imposing things on the user they can’t keep down the road, should they decide they want to switch to another theme.

Aesop allows writers to craft beautiful articles and designed experiences, going beyond simple “blog posts” to immerse readers in stories filled with imagination. The possibilities with Aesop, WordPress and the Journalistic theme are truly endless. With over 10 unique components to choose from including video, audio, quotes, chapters, and more, Aesop and Journalistic combine to form the most powerful WordPress storytelling experience ever.

Simple Feature #4: Typekit Font Integration

One of the things we’ve always been interested in is expanding the font selection available to WordPress users. That’s why we built Typecase, a font management plugin for WordPress that uses Google Web Fonts that works with any theme. It’s also why we added support for custom Typekit fonts to our two newest themes, Creative and Largo. The best part? No Typekit account required. We handle it all for you so you can pay one price to get your site up and running.

Largo includes a unique, beautiful set of fonts that have been optimized for web viewing. These fonts set the foundation for Largo and help draw the reader in. Every purchaser of an UpThemes theme with Typekit fonts gains access to a purposefully-designed, perfect typographic foundation. This experience is designed to be quick and painless: simply enter your license key and the fonts will immediately be activated and a new Typekit “kit” will be created—all behind the scenes.

Note: When developing our integration with Typekit we built an extension for Easy Digital Downloads called EDD Typekit. This extension handles all of our “kit” registration and expiration. We built this specifically for our own usage with Typekit fonts but it could be useful for other theme providers interested in providing it to their users. Contact us for more info.

So what’s the point?

My point is this. After 7+ years of building themes for WordPress and 13 years of experience in web design, I’ve learned a lot about doing things the right way. Because of this, with every theme we work on, we improve the process, codebase, and user experience to continuously provide customers not with the “coolest features” but the right mix of beauty, functionality, usability, speed, accessibility, internationalization, support, documentation, tools, and security in the WordPress products they run on their website.

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