Gutenberg, one year on (almost)

WordPress 5.3 was released last week, expanding and refining the block editor (aka Gutenberg) and bringing improved accessibility. Almost a year on from the initial release of the block editor in WordPress 5.0, now is a good time to reflect on where we are with building Gutenberg-enabled sites.

Initial thoughts

Overall, it’s been a very positive experience. Despite the initial barrage of negative feedback (who does like change?) and the inevitable frustrations and teething problems that come with a new way of doing things, the new Gutenberg block editor is an improvement on the old editor and opens up a myriad of new possibilities.

It’s worth bearing in mind that we’re still in the throes of the development of the block editor – with full site editing (think navigation, site headers and footers, etc) still to come, along with much more (see the WordPress roadmap). So it’s still a changing landscape, and one that I’m looking forward to watching as things progress.

Flexibility just increased

Gutenberg brings a huge amount more flexibility than we had with the old WordPress editor. Rather than being constrained to a single page layout, the block-based nature of Gutenberg means that users can decide what content they want where on each page. Want those FAQs to go underneath an image/text block rather than above? No problem. Want a block of text alongside an image? Easy.

On the ground, when building a site, you don’t have to have a separate page template for each different layout. This allows for more variety throughout a site. WordPress could always do pretty much whatever you wanted it to do – if you had the right coding skills. But sometimes the hoops you had to jump through – or have the end admin user jump through – did not justify creating the layout you wanted. That’s changed with Gutenberg.

But sometimes we might want to limit that flexibility

Huge flexibility is not always a good thing. Although a user could feasibly create hundreds of different page layouts, that would rarely, if ever, be desirable. Making the call on what to fix in the theme and the level of flexibility to give the end user is therefore an important one. As a website consultant, I am paid to create a website, and I see part of that role as ensuring the user can maintain and add to the site going forwards – in a coherent, structured way.

With Gutenberg, one of my jobs is to work out what level of flexibility the user needs, and where it’s actually preferable to limit that flexibility – to prevent frustration and/or the creation of bad content/layouts!

Increased complexity and cost?

With more flexibility comes more complexity. For the user – yes, although I think Gutenberg is well enough designed for most users to get the hang of it. But for the developer, having multiple variations on a large number of blocks to account for in your stylesheets is time consuming. WordPress development definitely just got more complicated.

Having said that, things are changing in the WordPress theming world; some are predicting the end of themes as we know them – and maybe things will get simpler again in due course. (Further reading: Rich Tabor’s ‘A Look at WordPress Themes of the Future’; Justin Tadlock’s WP Tavern post on ‘Themes of the Future’; and Mike Schinkel’s ‘modest proposal’ looking at the possibility of WordPress deprecating themes altogether).

I certainly wouldn’t be sad to see some simplicity brought back to theme development – although not at the cost of flexibility for the developer 🙂 For now though, there’s no doubt in my mind that Gutenberg has increased the complexity and cost of WordPress theme development.

A different market?

Finally, the changing website eco-system means I have a very different market to what I did when I started out in 2008. This is very much linked to the cost/complexity issue. The rise of Gutenberg (and other, non-WordPress site building tools) means that my bread and butter clients of 10 years ago are now creating their own sites (they also can’t afford the increased cost of a well-built, custom WordPress site).

I see this as an opportunity as much as a challenge. The bit about my job I love the most is the consultancy/strategy piece, so targeting slightly larger businesses and providing consultancy/workshops on strategy, usability, structure and more is a natural progression of what I do. The business consultant part of me relishes the challenge of putting together more complex sites – and so in one sense, Gutenberg and the developing website landscape has perhaps done me a favour!

Used or developed with Gutenberg? I’d be interested to hear your experience.

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