Every so often, I’ll bring up ThemeForest and trawl through the latest additions to the site’s massive database of ‘HTML-by-numbers’ WordPress themes. I’m usually impressed, but today I’m frustrated. I think I’ve finally spotted a trend in the skin-deep design differences between themes, one that’s summed up by recent development tendencies towards natty page designers featuring very rudimentary drag-and-drop functionality. As the world becomes more technically literate, and moves away from supermarket digital goods, I think we’re bound for a boutique, creative and hand-crafted digital revival. What we’re seeing at the moment is a curious blend of Henry Ford and Modernism – but the web will soon, I feel, move beyond that.
What’s a WordPress page builder?
In the loosest possible terms, WordPress page builders allow you to use pre-designed, ‘kind-of-modular’ blocks of HTML and CSS, rearranging them within a page structure as you see fit. As a result, you can put together an attractive site, populate it with media and copy, and host it – all within a few minutes.
That sounds great. What’s the problem?
Head over to ThemeForest and take a peek. There’s a lot of convenience there: flexible layouts, one-click purchase, and integrated hosting.
There’s also a distinct lack of creative innovation.That sort of statement makes theme developers’ hair stand on end. A lack of innovation? Ridiculous. Commercial WordPress themes are beautifully and neatly coded, and designed from the ground up to fit loads of new user scenarios. And a lack of creativity? WordPress designers may well – and rightly so – take umbrage at the notion. The best themes are painstakingly constructed to fit loose and varied client briefs. Making them is an immensely creative exercise.
I’m not quarreling with these points. What I’m saying is that there’s a real lack of ‘creative innovation’ – deviating from established routes, by combining elements from across disciplines, and creating something unique. There can’t be, as WordPress themes aren’t intended to be unique. They’re intended to be useful.
The web’s an information machine. Surely useful is better than unique?
Right now, we live in a browser-based ecosystem. People tend to view the web through a variety of different window sizes, with (essentially) the same kinds of control over what they see. WordPress page builders work well in this world – the pages are designed responsively to flex across smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops. They present information in an optimal and logical way.
But this is changing. The way we consume the internet’s information is already moving away from the browser. Once you discover RSS (Really Simple Syndication) readers, you’ll see what I mean.
And the move to ‘local information formatting’ isn’t limited to RSS. Services like Pulse, Newsify, IFFFT, Flipboard, Alternion and Meople represent the bold new face of the internet. These so-called ‘information aggregators’ deliver the web’s nebulous and tendrilous stream of information in a much more consumable form-factor. This isn’t a ‘phase’ – more the ‘next phase’.
How can you be so sure about that?
What’s the fastest-growing internet phenomenon right now? Personalised aggregation. Google know this, which is why they’re pedal-to-the-metal improving the personalisation of their products. Google Glass won’t work unless it’s neatly personalised. Google Now won’t, either. These aren’t just services the company feels have promise: they’re believed to be the media of the future.
So what has this got to do with WordPress?
If information can be distributed more efficiently through personalised aggregation, getting folks to your website is going to need something special. What can you do to get people to hang around on your site, while you advertise to them? Brick-and-mortar retailers went through this problem during the latter half of the twentieth century, and the solution was to build increasingly unique and culturally rich retail environments. Distinguishing yourself by creating a phenomenal environment for your customers was the only way to attract customers in through your doors – something that’s a lot more evident in the New Age of e-Commerce.
I believe that the web is about to hit the same kinds of problems. When there are competitors (personalised aggregators) stealing your market share (unique hits), you need to innovate to survive. Innovation can’t simply be improving on the next guy’s product (though that’s an essential part of it). WordPress Themes offer top-flight products in the fairly limited category of out-of-the-box websites, and Page Builders can extend their flexibility bit-by-bit. But they’re not creatively innovative. They’re not doing anything new. They’re not blending disparate disciplines in exciting or groundbreaking ways. These things are only going to become more obvious as innovative hardware encourages us to consume information in increasingly efficient ways.
So, next time you’re tempted to use a WordPress template as a start point for a client, call yourself up short. Bear in mind your new, and rising, competition. What can you offer visitors beyond nicely-presented information? How can you lure them to the browser? And how can you ensure that your client winds up with a creatively innovative sales environment?