2018: The year of the missing theme

Every year since 2009, the good people at WP have released a new default theme. Until now. The default theme is usually released in November, and is named for the upcoming year. So, the Twenty Ten theme was released late in 2009.  The tradition continued through Twenty Seventeen, released in late 2016, then ground to a screeching, unplanned, embarrassing halt. This is the year of the missing theme.

The year of the missing Theme

Blame WP 5 and its signature feature, the new Gutenberg editor. The release of WP 5, planned for late 2017, was supposed to make a huge splash, in part by including both Gutenberg and the Twenty Eighteen theme. But, late 2017 came and went, and Gutenberg sucked. Release was delayed to Spring 2018 – which came and went – and Gutenberg still sucked. Release was delayed again, and again, and so on, till now we are in November 2018 – time for the Twenty Nineteen theme. So, WP 5 is now planned to be released on November 19, 2018, along with Gutenberg (it still sucks but somewhat less now – though opinions vary) and the Twenty Eighteen Nineteen theme. There is a great deal of scuttlebutt that WP may miss the November release date – Gutenberg still sucking and all – in which case the date would skip past the holidays into early 2020.

So … two full years with no new theme. As a practical matter this is no big deal – Twenty Seventeen is just fine as a troubleshooting tool, which is all I use it for – it has way too much wasted white space and too few redeeming features for me to use it in production. Just … not a good look for WP. I could be wrong but my thinking is this is bad karma for dissing Bi Sheng, the actual inventor of movable type printing. Not to take anything away from Johannes. His improvements made large scale printing technically and economically feasible, and changed the world forever. But Bi was the actual inventor, roughly 400 years earlier, and he gets comparatively very little love. Is it too late to change the name of the new editor?

Automatic updating WP, themes, and plugins

The vast majority of hacked WordPress sites were compromised due to outdated plugins, themes, or WP core. I need to keep my site updated. But should I update manually, or automatically? If I choose automatic, updates will be more timely but there is always a small chance that an update will break something. If I update manually, I can make a full site backup first, and restore if anything breaks – but I am at more risk of a hack occurring in between my manual updates.

Automatic updating WP, themes, and plugins

I had always kept my WP, themes, and plugins up to date manually, as a item on my monthly maintenance checklist. After the WP REST API exploit debacle, I decided to switch to automatic updating. I now auto-update everything – major and minor core releases as well as plugins and themes. I am choosing better hack protection over oops-the-update-broke-my-site risk.

Configuring auto-updates is easy-breezy. I just add the following to my child theme functions.php file, or better yet to my custom plugin.

// Automate updates for WordPress core
add_filter( 'allow_minor_auto_core_updates', '__return_true' );
add_filter( 'allow_major_auto_core_updates', '__return_true' );

// Automate updates for themes and plugins
add_filter( 'auto_update_theme', '__return_true' );
add_filter( 'auto_update_plugin', '__return_true' );

I have to keep in mind that ‘automatic’ does not mean instantaneous. PHP is not a continuously running process, something like a page load has to trigger it. And since my pages are globally cached for blazing site speed, I can never be sure when a trigger will happen. In practice though, even my low-traffic sites are staying updated much more timely than with my previous manual method.

Update: Explicitly setting automatic updates for minor core releases (i.e. maintenance and security releases) may seem redundant. This is default behavior since WP 3.7. However, WP 4.3 broke this feature, and most sites that were upgraded to 4.3 could not auto-update to 4.4. With the explicit setting in my custom plugin, my sites auto-updated to WP 4.4 just fine. Sometimes redundancy can be a good thing.

WP Child Theme

create a WP child theme manuallyWhatever WP theme I decide to use, I will almost certainly want to make a few tweaks to it. I could make changes directly to the theme, but those would be lost in the next version update. Instead, a good practice is to create a child theme. I can create a WP child theme manually, but doing so requires an understanding of words like ‘enqueue’. I can make the job easier using a plugin like Child Theme Configurator. After I install and activate the plugin, I click the new ‘Child Themes’ item on the Tools menu, choose a parent theme – Responsive Mobile in my case, and click Analyze.

Create a child theme

After a short delay several configuration options appear. I leave them at the default setting except #8, where I click the Note checkbox, then click Create New Child Theme.

ccc item 8 and 9

Now I have a child theme that I can tweak to my heart’s content. If something goes horribly wrong I can switch back to the parent theme and start over. I don’t actually use my child theme for much – just a custom 404 error page and a few cosmetic changes to the footer. The Responsive Mobile theme provides a nice set of Theme Options where I can add custom CSS and scripts, and I use a custom plugin for code that would otherwise go into the child theme functions.php file.

The next step is optional but fun. I can edit the comments in the child theme styles.css file, and swap out the screenshot image file, to customize the look of the Child Theme Details in my WP admin dashboard.

Child theme details

Very little advice on WP themes

little advice on WP themesI really cannot offer much advice at all on WP themes. I just don’t have experience with many themes. I find one that works well for me and stick with it. I want a theme that provides a framework and does not get in my way. Also – a personal preference – I want users to immediately see content, not a ginormous image that takes up the entire landing page above the scroll.  Initially I used Twenty Ten, which I liked quite a bit, but eventually it became obvious that a modern website must be responsive. I switched to Responsive Mobile from CyberChimps, and have used it ever since. It meets my needs and offers a simple but powerful set of Theme Options that make it easy for me to add custom CSS styles and header/footer scripts. It seems lean. A comparison of file sizes to the current default theme:

Responsive Mobile Twenty Seventeen
functions.php 2.6 K 17.7 K
styles.css 1.8 K 79.9 K

With the huge number of high quality free themes available in the official WP themes directory, I see no reason to consider themes from other sources, including ‘Pro’, ‘Premium’ or otherwise ‘Pay’ themes. If I were to try a theme from a source other than the official WP directory, I would want to be very, very sure it is a reliable source. How to be sure? I have no idea, I only consider free themes from the official WP directory.

For most WP users, the current default theme – Twenty Seventeen at the time of this post – seems a good place to start.