Staying Relevant In A Quickly Shifting WordPress Landscape

Jul 29, 2020

Staying Relevant In A Quickly Shifting WordPress Landscape

Jul 29, 2020

MalCare, your favorite WordPress security plugin, recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ben Gillbanks, a veteran WordPress developer about his work in the WordPress community. In the interview below we get to speak with Ben about his past work and how the shifting WordPress landscape is forcing him to think about creative ways to stay relevant. The interview below is exciting and in-depth. So let’s jump in!

The Interview

Hi Ben! First off, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to chat with our readers today. You’ve been in the WordPress space for 13 years now, so why don’t you kick things off by introducing yourself and share with us a little bit of your journey as a web developer and how you got where you are now?

Thanks for inviting me to do the interview! 🙂

I started off going to university and wanting to study 3D art with a view to working in video games. I spent 3 years specializing in 3D art, but the course was broad and I did a lot of web design as well. This was 1998 and I remember when CSS became a thing. At the time we were hard coding font attributes directly in the html – so using a CSS file to control everything from one place was a revelation.

I later got a job at Miniclip.com (an online game portal) as a game artist. I was employee number 3, and they needed a web designer. We were all doing bits of everything and since I had the most experience I took over control of the website. Eventually becoming Director of Web Development overseeing a team of 20+. In that time I wanted to start a blog (I already had a website with a home grown CMS) and I found WordPress. I’ve been using WordPress for my personal site ever since.

What made you decide to go full-time in developing your own WordPress themes?

I worked for Miniclip for 11 years. I became Director of Web Development but after a few years of doing that I decided management wasn’t for me, so I hired someone to replace me, and moved into a more forward thinking role – which I quite enjoyed. 

Miniclip was a games website where you play browser based games. Flash and Unity games mostly. But the future is increasingly moving to mobile, and so Miniclip opened a development studio in Portugal where they built games. Flash was slowly being killed off and there didn’t seem to be a future in online games. So it seemed like a good time to try my own thing.

I started selling WordPress themes in 2007 – we were one of the first theme shops and I was working full time at Miniclip. It took 8 years to get the courage to move into WordPress full time. In some ways I wish I’d done it sooner and capitalised on the early success. We did really well to start with. Hired some people to do support and everything. But now it’s just me noodling away on different things.

You started Pro Theme Design back in 2007, and you pride your WordPress templates to serve specific purposes rather than being bloated, all-in-one choices. What is the reasoning behind the approach of providing specialized themes to WordPress users?

I don’t like the all in one themes. They’re a mess and all you hear on WordPress Twitter/ Facebook/ Slack groups is people complaining about how difficult the themes are to edit. Or how slow and bloated the themes are.

I totally see the appeal from a user’s point of view. They’re sold the dream of being able to do whatever they want, but the reality is quite different. Wrangling the site into something resembling the demo is often incredibly difficult.

I know there are developers who don’t like Gutenberg but I think from a users perspective it will make the setup a lot simpler. You can build an attractive site quite quickly using the block editor.

Personally I want to create WordPress themes that instantly look like the demo. As soon as you activate them you will be 99% of the way there. I like to add a few more flexible elements, and some settings in the Customizer, but mostly they will ‘just work’.

Digging a little deeper on Pro Theme Design’s history, what was it like for you when you first started the website? How did you go about onboarding your first paying customers? 

I don’t even remember now! It was a long time ago – however I do remember that it was very easy. Since there were only a couple of other theme shops people bought things really quickly. One of our first customers was Adii who co-founded WooThemes.

I do remember that we were the first people to make magazine themes. Darren had made a free theme called Mimbo and our first paid theme was Mimbo Pro. Everyone else was making blogging themes.

At the time there were a bunch of different WordPress news blogs (I think WPTavern is the only popular one left) and everyone read them. So basically we didn’t have to work very hard. It just happened. We told a few people and then made money.

That doesn’t happen anymore unfortunately.

You also mention that you are the web developer, owner and support person for your themes website. Essentially, you decide what themes to make, create them and you also get to provide answers for customer questions. That’s just the gist of it, but these roles all come with some serious responsibilities. How do you approach time management in order to balance all three of them?

Darren did a lot of the design work in the early days, but he isn’t really involved now. He’s moved into music production. So I do everything.

I don’t think about time management. My philosophy is to simplify or automate as much as I can. So I have a build process that takes care of updating themes. I have comprehensive docs that answer frequent questions. I use IFTTT to tell me when people post on the support forum.

Where possible I build things myself but I’m not afraid of paying for services to make my life easier. My favourite is FreeAgent which does much of my accounting for me.

Anything I can do to reduce the amount of work I have to do I will.

As you mentioned, in collaboration with Darren Hoyt you created Mimbo Pro. It is one of the original premium magazine themes for the platform. Its development also led to the creation of the image resize script TimThumb. How was it like working with Darren in completing this well respected project? How happy are you with the results?

It was a lot of fun. At the time nobody was using version control, so we spent a lot of evenings editing files live on a dev server. We regularly overwrote each other’s changes and broke things and didn’t know how to fix them. As such it took a lot longer to build than it should have.

Darren also came at things from the point of view of a designer. He was less interested in the technical aspect, and more interested in making things that are attractive and easy to use, so that’s how we came up with things like TimThumb, and the carousel; which nobody else was doing at the time. In the early days we tried to have a unique feature for every theme we made. Something that made it a bit different from everyone else.

Mimbo Pro has since been rewritten 4 times, but it’s showing its age now and I don’t think it fits into a world of block building anymore. But it was a massive learning experience and something I enjoyed doing at the time.

TimThumb was a whole other thing. It’s because of TimThumb that featured images got included in WordPress. That was a huge revelation and, I think, part of the reason we did well early on. People wanted to see how we had used it and add the script to their own themes.

Being the one-man army behind Pro Theme Design, how do you go about brainstorming your next theme? What are the main parameters that you consider before deciding to start work on a project? 

I use Sketch for my theme designs. I have a Sketch file that has about 50 designs in it. It acts like a “Sketch” book. I just add things as I think of them. Most of the designs aren’t finished, they’re literally digital doodles, but sometimes something works and so I develop it more.

I don’t do much planning though. I tend to design the homepage to create the feel of the theme and then I start building in the browser. As the homepage gets built the rest of the design largely falls into place naturally. Any time I get stuck I go back to Sketch and design the element I am stuck on.

That said I don’t make many themes these days. I haven’t released anything new in a couple of years. I think the future of themes is quite limited and more and more they will be consumed by WordPress core. They will be replaced largely by the block editor.

As such I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I can continue to be relevant. And, for me, the future is in WordPress plugins/ blocks and so that’s what I’m spending time on.

I am also really interested in ethics, privacy, sustainability and accessibility. The one theme I am currently working on is designed to be super lightweight, and accessible. This makes it fast, and efficient, and easy for everyone to use. The code is on Github so anyone can contribute/ fork it. You can see the design on Binary Moon.

Tell us more about Binary Moon. It contains a portfolio and a very active blog with users regularly commenting on each post. Tell us more about the site’s purpose. 

BinaryMoon.co.uk has been my personal site since I started designing things for the internet. Probably 1999 ish. It became a blog in 2005. I don’t know how important it’s been from an income point of view. I think it was probably more important back when we started. These days it’s mostly me talking to other developers who make themes so don’t need my products.

In terms of learning, I think the best way to learn is to test things yourself on real world projects. It doesn’t matter how much I test themes locally when I use them on my own site I always find problems. But that’s great because I can then fix these problems so that others don’t see them.

As I mentioned earlier; the theme currently running on Binary Moon is Jarvis, the theme I am currently working on. I get to trial new features with it. For example it has a light and dark mode and changes colour scheme automatically. You pick the light and dark background colour and all the other colours change so they are still readable.

From a user’s point of view this is really simple. There’s only two settings to change and you have a totally different website. It also respects the visitors’ setup. I think it’s a nice feature and one we don’t see much of in WordPress since WordPress has a built in background colour setting that only lets you set a single colour.

You’ve been around the WordPress development community for the last 12 years. This gives you a unique ability to look back, but it also gives you a unique edge when it comes to seeing what’s next on the horizon. What three pieces of advice would you impart to a novice who’s looking to dive into WordPress development in 2020?

1. Don’t sell themes

This is advice, if you want to sell themes then don’t let me stop you. But it’s a really hard business to get into and the quick bucks that used to exist are long gone.

I am fortunate enough that I sell my themes on WordPress.com, and that’s where I make most of my income. If it wasn’t for that I would probably be doing something else.

2. Learn Javascript

Learning Javascript properly will give you a really good grounding in programming. It’s pretty easy compared to some languages, but it’s also super powerful, and at the moment it seems to be the way the web is moving.

If you want to build things for the WordPress editor then it may also be worth learning React. This will also be useful if you want to build headless sites with software like Gatsby.

But don’t learn React first. Learn Javascript.

If you start with Javascript your skills will be more transferable between React, and Vue, and Node. Deno, and whatever else might come along in the future. If you only learn React you will find it a lot harder to switch between platforms.

3. Do Something different

I don’t mean do something that’s not WordPress, but do something that hasn’t been done before with WordPress. Be creative. Don’t make another block collection unless you have something unique to offer or think you can do better than what already exists. Assuming you want to build things for the block editor then I am sure there’s a lot of potential that hasn’t been achieved. It’s still really new, we just need to work out where the pain points are and fix them.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with our blog audience today Ben. We greatly appreciate it. To our blog readers, if you’d like to learn more about Ben’s work you can learn more by heading over to Binary Moon

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