The last couple of days I’ve been reviewing a variety of aspects of using WordPress and I’ve come to realize something with regards to what I want to see happen with the Web and how WordPress can get us there…if it evolves in the right way.
To understand where I want things to go though, you have to understand where I’ve come from though.
Back around 1996, I actually started building online community sites around video games and shared information and news about these video games upon my site (before the word “blog” was really a word). This was all hand crafted HTML coding with no backend engine to generate posts or pages.
In the new millennium, I wanted to reduce the tediousness of crafting everything by hand and so I start fooling around with Radio Userland and later Movable Type. Both had their strengths and weaknesses, with aspects of them still more innovative than some current platforms today.
Squarespace: Great Form & Function
Sometime around 2004 though, I came across a proprietary platform called Squarespace created by Anthony Casalena, its founder and lone developer. Once I started exploring and playing around with the platform, I soon came to absolutely love its rapid and natural approach to site development. While radically different from the Squarespace that many know today (since Version 6 in 2012 was a complete redesign), the key strengths of the platform (solidified in Version 5) were its separated content, structure, and style areas (with style being further broken down into layout and style).
Another awesome feature of the platform in Version 4 was that you could actually modify parts (not all) of the HTML code of a template and export it simply as an XML file. With Version 5, the ability to edit HTML code was removed but you could still export a custom style of an existing template as an XML file. This was pretty amazing because it allowed you to easily share a template / style with anyone (i.e. friend, web designer customer) as a simple single file.
With Version 6 though, as I noted above, this will all lost. Squarespace radically shifted from being a designers platform to a developers platform. Now if you really wanted to do anything serious with the platform (or even sometimes something just basic and simple), you had to do it manually via code in the backend. Even worse, a lot of some of its best functionality and flexibility was removed (i.e. forums blocks, journal sorting options, etc) and the style area was severely neutered from what it once was as well.
Other Platforms Today
When I look at a lot of platforms today (even the current version of Squarespace), the main problem I see is a lack of organizing all of this complexity of the platform in a simple way. Note I’m not saying removing the complexity but rather organizing it so it seems accessible and simple to make sense of and understand. Yet instead of achieving this, they actually simplify their functionality, dumbing it down in the process, because they can’t figure out how to properly design an organized interface for their platform with great usability in mind.
With WordPress today, we see Gutenberg emulating the block based Layout Engine first introduced in Squarespace Version 6 and allowing WordPress to make a huge leap forward in terms of layout and design possibilities. And while the current version of Gutenberg focuses on layout possibilities within a page or post content area, future versions will allow layout possibilities for the entire site.
In my opinion, when WordPress reaches the point where you can modify the layout of the entire site, it will have to radically rethink what a theme is as well. In effect, if the layout functionality is embedded in platform rather than the theme, this will dramatically reduce the number of theme variations. In effect, themes will no longer differ based upon their layout but will just differ based upon their style.
Unifying The HTML & CSS Framework
When this happens, I believe WordPress will finally move to a unified HTML & CSS framework which was what made Squarespace so powerful for designers in Version 4 and 5 as well. Why? Because once you have a unified HTML & CSS framework, it will finally allow the fluid flexibility and openness of changing site styles on the fly without having to worry about the backend HTML structure as well. Yet you can’t do that right now in WordPress because the CSS “style” of a site is hardwired to the HTML structure of it. This effectively makes the styles of a theme proprietary to the developer and theme, rather than open to the community.
So by creating a unified HTML & CSS framework and by integrating layout options within the platform rather than within the theme, what’s left within the theme is basically style options (ie. fonts, colours, sizes, borders, background images, spacing, etc). Because of this, the Customizer will undergo a radical remake and restructuring which I think is sorely needed, since right now there is no organizational separation between layout and style. They’re just all mixed together in an illogical sort of way to me.
Once this happens and themes effectively just become about styling your site, I think the next evolution will be the creation of an integrated style editor to dramatically improve the user experience and usability. Think about it. What Gutenberg is doing today for layouts, allowing them to be modified live within a post and page content area, and eventually anywhere on your site, it can achieve the same thing tomorrow for styles. In effect, the ability to modify the style of your entire site live.
Empowering & Expressive Designs
While many people might say WordPress can already do this and I will even agree that it does, it does this quite meagrely and horribly. In effect, the user experience is kludgy, without any great design and usability put into designing a better experience overall. Some plugin developers, such as Microthemer are trying to improve this style design experience but what’s missing with it is a unified HTML & CSS backend structure to WordPress to really make it powerful and easy to use.
For example, Microthemer has the ability to import or export Design Packs which contain either Skins (styles) or Scaffolds (selectors). Yet the problem with this approach though is that whatever design pack you create, its proprietarily locked to the WordPress theme they are created with. So even though my friend may like my style design pack I created for my site, he can’t use and import my exported version of it, unless he changes his WordPress theme to the same one as mine.
This was effectively the beauty and simplicity of Squarespace back during Version 4 and 5. It was like as if WordPress had a unified HTML & CSS backend structure and Microthemer was built into it for free. And even more so, every installation would also have this unified Scaffold (selectors) with a bunch of Skin (styles) to choose from by default. Even better, if you customized a skin style yourself, effectively making a new one out of it, you could easily share it with a friend by simply exporting it and having them import it.
When WordPress reaches this point of evolution and integration, it will go beyond just democratizing publishing on the Web to empowering the design of it as well. I think this is an incredibly important point to mention because expressing and communicating ourselves goes well beyond mere words. If anything, Gutenberg is making this readily apparent right now by showing how empowering and expressive having integrated layout controls on a website can be.