Twenty Sixteen gives me a bit of a sour taste

Of course we all expected a new default theme soon enough, as the naming scheme demands; I had my money that it would be part of 4.5 early next year. It was announced yesterday with a design proposal complete, and will likely go into WordPress 4.4.

The surprise announcement isn’t much of a surprise for the default themes, which have frequently shown up with a lot of the decisions made before the official announcement. But the announcement does leave me with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

Twenty Sixteen is the seventh default theme ever (the first iteration of the series was Twenty Ten) and it’s the fifth time the theme has been designed by an Automattic employee. Moreover, it’s the third theme in arrow by the same designer. And the process for when, how, and by whom default theme design decisions are made is murky at best.

Twenty Ten was designed by Ian Stewart, who became the first Automattic theme team member shortly after designing Twenty Ten (so not even counted in the five of seven number). Twenty Eleven was an adaptation of the Duster theme — which was designed by the Automattic theme team. Twenty Twelve is the oddball, as it was designed by The Theme Foundry and led by Drew Strojny, upon invitation from Matt Mullenweg. Twenty Thirteen was designed by Automattic designer Joen Asmussen. Twenty Fourteen, Twenty Fifteen, and now Twenty Sixteen have all been designed by Automattic designer Takashi Irie.

People always have and always will have opinions about the design and aesthetics of the default themes. Matt Mullenweg understands this and acknowledged to me that it’s impossible to impress everyone.  He said so to me today:

It’s hard to imagine a process of picking a design that would make everyone happy, which is why we’ve always had it be personal to Matt and never claimed it was anything more than completely arbitrary. On the bright side, it changes every year and is always on-time, so if you don’t like this year another one is around the corner, and all previous Twenty themes are still maintained and updated.

I don’t dispute that, and it’d be hard to do so. And I also like how the default theme changes every year. Lance Willet once described why it changes quite well.

The default theme should show off the latest and greatest features, be flexible enough to gracefully support child themes and encourage customization, work well for a blog or a website, and sport a design that is aesthetically pleasing and a bit different from the last design. Under the hood it should represent the best in coding practices and technical excellence. That said, the default theme isn’t trying to be an end-all-be-all theme. It won’t please everyone.

In the past, I think the default theme has done a pretty nice job of showcasing the latest features of WordPress. Twenty Eleven was a very early experiment in responsive design (completely percentage based, wildly enough!). Twenty Twelve was a good iteration for more practical responsive design and the first default example of a theme with a static front page. Twenty Thirteen boldly stepped into post format territory and drove innovation even though a post format UI didn’t make that release. Twenty Fourteen highlighted what can be done with a magazine theme and standardized featured content. Twenty Fifteen nicely highlighted some new customizer features and brought the default theme back to the basics of blogging.

I’m sure Twenty Sixteen will leave its own signature, and I’m not here to whine about the design. I’m here to whine about the process.

First and foremost, I don’t like that so little is known about the process and people involved in the design decision aspect of the default themes. Development has always been pretty open and a normal process for these themes; but the design decision making is seemingly always behind closed doors.

Best I can tell, Matt essentially pulls in the people he wants involved and tells the world about it when he’s made his choices. He told me that he looked through a lot of options for Twenty Sixteen, and he said most were not designed by Automatticians. Matt also told me to get in touch with Ian Stewart if I wanted to get involved,  but I (and I presume most anyone else interested) never knew any discussion was underway. Yet Tammie Lister (also an Automattican) cited months of discussion in the announcement post today.

It’s a bit of a catch 22 to want collaboration but not notify anyone interested when and how to do so. When I told Matt this he reiterated that the process happens every year and therefore any time is a good time to speak out. As I commented on the post, it’s such an unknown process that even knowing who to reach out to and how to speak out is hard.

So, I’m not even complaining about the design. I think Takashi is very talented, even if all of his work isn’t precisely my style. I have the following complaints though:

  • I don’t like that one designer has designed three default themes in a row. I have more faith in the diversity of talented WordPress designers than that.
  • I don’t like that Automattic employees have had such an outsized influence on default themes.
  • I don’t like that the design process is so veiled.

I want to see more diversity for default themes, and more light.

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