WordPress Theme Design Trends (2003 to 2019)

When the first version of WordPress was shipped in May 2003, it had groundbreaking design features for the time and defined the first batch of WordPress theme design trends to come. There were highly intelligent line breaks, nice textures, and the ability for bloggers to add links to their blogrolls.

Remember blogrolls? They were a big deal 16 years ago. Everyone who was anyone was linking to other bloggers and hoping to get links in return.

Today, blogrolls are a thing of the past. In 2019, we’ve got page builders and block-based editing that let anyone create and customize a WordPress site — no code required.

So how did we get here? To understand what WordPress is today, let’s take a look at how WordPress themes have evolved over the past 16 years.

WordPress theme design trends from 2003-2019

The first default WordPress theme (hint: it wasn’t Kubrick)

When WordPress 0.71-gold was released in 2003, it came with the default b2layout.

The template was basic and ideal for blogging at the time. It had a simple header and a black sidebar. You’ve got to remember, internet speeds were relatively slow at the time and the simple WordPress theme design not only loaded quick enough, but was easy to modify compared to rival blogging platform Moveable Type.

WordPress Design from b2layout

WordPress Design from b2layout

Sidebars: A mainstay of early blogs

Sidebars were an important component of early web design as designers tried to figure out how to design for the web — and WordPress theme design was no exception. Sidebars would feature prominently for many years, briefly disappearing in Twenty Thirteen and returning in Twenty Fourteen.

In the early days of WordPress theme design trends, sidebars enabled bloggers to proudly display their blogrolls. With the release of WordPress 0.7 and its Links Manager, bloggers could better manage their blogrolls and automatically add them to the sidebar.

The basic template that came with WordPress was given a facelift for WordPress 1.2. The new color scheme was a breath of fresh air — a pleasant change from the previously dark theme.

WordPress Theme Classic

WordPress Theme Classic

WordPress 1.2 featured plugin architecture for the first time, which allowed developers to extend the functionality of their theme design and share their plugins with the fledgling WordPress community.

In 2004, WordPress was the new kid on the blogging block — and something fun for folks who loved playing with code to customize. These tech savvy bloggers took to plugins with enthusiasm, and contributed to WordPress development overall by reporting bugs, providing feedback, and asking for new features.

WordPress core developers were all volunteers and used WordPress themselves for their blogs. As an open source project, feedback was welcomed and encouraged — and it enabled a user-centric approach to WordPress development that was unlike other blogging platforms at the time.

The Kubrick era: 2005-2010

In 2005, WordPress 1.5 introduced a flexible new theme system. Themes were broken down into different sections and files, giving users more control over how they customized their sites.

For instance, common site elements like headers, footers, and sidebars were split into their own files. Users could make a change to just one file (i.e home.php or comments.php) and see it everywhere immediately.

WordPress 1.5 also heralded the start of the long-running Kubrick era. Generally acknowledged as the first real default theme for WordPress, Kubrick showcased the power of the new theme system.

WordPress Theme Kubrick

WordPress Theme Kubrick

Michael Heilemann created the simple blue and white blog template and, for its time, the design was striking. With its rounded corners, custom header and two white columns — including a wide one for posts and a slimmer one for a sidebar — Kubrick was cutting edge!

Kubrick was the first flexible theme that worked out-of-the-box with many plugins. It was also the front-end face of WordPress from 2005 to 2010, making it the mainstay of WordPress theme design trends for years to come.

Premium themes: A happy accident

The WordPress Theme Repository was launched in 2008, allowing bloggers to download free WordPress themes and upload and share their own custom theme designs. The repository was something of a WordPress theme design showcase, letting users see how others were customizing WordPress and stretching the limitations of the platform.

WordPress themes repository

WordPress themes repository

Brian Gardner was one such blogger trying to push the boundaries of what WordPress could do. He downloaded themes, made his own customizations, and then uploaded his updated designs to the repository for others to use for free.

This led to requests for customizations. At first, bloggers paid him $25-$50 to change things like colors. But soon he was getting requests for more complex customizations. As he would later tell the StudioPress.fm podcast, he was making “vacation money” and it was fun compared to his boring desk job.

Things changed when a real estate agent asked him to customize his blog. Brian went above and beyond, creating a WordPress theme design that could work as a front page so it would look more like a website than blog.

However, the agent rejected it saying he just wanted a basic blog. Brian was crushed.

Rather than ditch the design, he wrote a blog post about it and asked his followers if the custom theme was something they’d be interested in buying. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Brian called his theme design the Revolution theme.

See the original Revolution theme:

In 2009, Revolution was rebranded to what we know it as today – StudioPress.

The rise and rise of WordPress customization

During 2008 and 2009, premium theme shops and WordPress-centric projects were being launched and there was a wave of new tutorial websites offering code hacks and ideas for customizing theme design that you wouldn’t find in the Codex. It was a whole new era in WordPress theme design trends – empowering the user.

Among these how-to sites was ThemeShaper.com. Originally started by Ian Stewart, ThemeShaper was a place for Ian to share his Thematic theme. But Thematic was more than just a theme — it was an opportunity for Ian to learn how the WordPress theme system worked and share his learnings with the community.

Thematic

Thematic

As WP Tavern’s Jeff Chandler recalls of Ian and Thematic, 2008 was the “wild west of theme development and any person who regularly shared theme development techniques became an influential member of the community.”

The emergence of theme frameworks

It was around this time that Brian Gardner partnered with Nathan Rice to launch Genesis, one of the first WordPress theme frameworks. These frameworks enabled developers to create themes that shared a common code base, providing a code library and basic architecture for themes that allowed users to put different designs on top. As Brian told the StudioPress.fm podcast:

“Once we built Genesis and introduced that idea and concept to the WordPress community, people bought into it. Obviously, we had a pretty good following through StudioPress and me personally. That sort of transitioned from standalone themes to what’s now Genesis the framework and the child theme system that comes along with it.”
Other theme frameworks soon emerged, such as Thesis. These frameworks marked an evolutionary step forward in WordPress theme development, which Yoast’s Joost de Valk summed up perfectly in a ThemeShaper post back in 2009:

“Chris Pearson’s Thesis and Ian Stewart’s Thematic might be pointing (WordPress theme design trends) in the direction where it should be heading: a theme that basically isn’t a theme anymore, it’s a layout engine.”

WordPress 3.0: A turning point

In 2010, the release of WordPress 3.0 marked a major leap forward in the development of the platform. With features including custom post types, better custom taxonomies, and custom background, headers, and menus, WordPress was becoming a fully fledged content management system, not just a simple blogging platform.

WordPress 3.0 came with Twenty Ten, officially ending Kubrick’s reign as the default theme and ushering in the tradition of a new default theme for each year, which was a big milestone for WordPress theme design trends.

WordPress Theme Design Twenty Ten

WordPress Theme Design Twenty Ten

The theme customizer

By 2012, the evolution of WordPress theme design was moving along at steady pace. Now that commercial businesses were invested in seeing WordPress grow, they were developing premium themes with more features and functionality that enabled users to customize them more easily via panels in the WordPress admin.

It was during this time that the Theme Customizer was introduced to WordPress 3.4. The Theme Customizer let users make basic changes to themes, such as colors and backgrounds and preview them before making them live.

Theme Customizer

Theme Customizer

Responsive design and mobile

Around this time, responsive design was growing in popularity as more and more people were using their smartphones to access the web. Twenty Twelve was the first fully response default theme crafted with a mobile-first layout so it could be viewed on any size device, from smartphones to big HiDPI/retina screens.

Twenty Twelve was also special for another reason — it was the first default theme to come with a special homepage template, rather than force users to display blog posts on the homepage.

Theme Twenty Twelve

Theme Twenty Twelve

The emergence of builder themes

Customizing WordPress around this time was starting to get easier. Thanks to the Theme Customizer and the many websites that published tutorials on how to customize WordPress, users could make any change to their site.

The only problem was, users still needed some knowledge of CSS and PHP if they wanted to make customizations beyond the advanced settings available with many themes at the time.

This changed in 2013 when page builders emerged — and the most well-known at the time was Divi.

Theme Divi

Theme Divi

Elegant Themes’ Divi page builder was groundbreaking. It let users drag and drop different sections within a page and control every aspect of a site, from colors and fonts to headers and footers. It came with various pre-built layouts and could be easily integrated with WooCommerce. It was responsive and could be used to display fullwidth images and video.

Divi was an instant success — the 965 comments on the announcement post prove that! For the first time, anyone could build a website without having to touch a single line of code.

The world of WordPress theme design trends to this point had evolved from having the ability to drag and drop widgets, to drag and drop pages, and now drag and drop themes.

Magazine themes

Let’s pause for a minute and rewind the clock back to 2009.

The Theme Repository was still quite new, but it was growing. Users were downloading theme and contributing their own theme designs.

At the same time, premium WordPress themes were also growing in popularity. Compared to the free themes in the repository, premium themes offered advanced features. But more importantly, they were not blogging themes. The Theme Repository was a great place to download a theme — if you wanted a blog.

So started a new chapter in WordPress theme design trends – magazine themes, which allowed people to run more sophisticated blogs and news sites with more content than a traditional blog layout allowed. These types of themes often included ad space, which appealed to users who wanted to make money via their site.

An example of a magazine theme:

Magazine themes were a natural evolution of blogging themes that allowed users to most of categories, tags, and post formats.

Fast forward to 2014 and the default WordPress theme finally caught up. Twenty Fourteen featured a sleek, modern, and beautifully crafted responsive design that allowed anyone to turn their website into a magazine.

See Twenty Fourteen in action:

Business and portfolio themes

In 2015, as WordPress continued to grow into a fully fledged CMS, the next natural evolution was business and portfolio themes. People were starting to use WordPress to power their business and agency sites — and even corporate sites — while freelancers were using WordPress to showcase their portfolios.

Meanwhile, sidebars were less common in business themes, which tended to feature a horizontal and layered design similar to the Zelle theme pictured below. The popularity of sidebars waned as responsive design evolved (sidebars were tricky to display on smaller devices). Sidebar-less designs similar to the default Twenty Thirteen theme were becoming more popular.

Gutenberg block editor

Gutenberg block editor

As WordPress.org explains:

“Gutenberg is more than an editor. It’s also the foundation that’ll revolutionize customization and site building in WordPress.”

Gutenberg (and Gutenberg-compatible themes) offers a block-based editing and building experience that allows users to create blog posts (at least for now). A block is any single element of content — an image, a paragraph of text, or a YouTube video — and these blocks can be inserted, configured, and moved around to build post layouts.

The current default Twenty Nineteen theme was designed to show off the power of the block editor. It features custom styles for all the default blocks and unlike many default WordPress themes that suited one purpose (i.e. blogging, magazines), Twenty Nineteen can be adapted for use on a wide range of websites, from portfolios and business sites to blogs and non-profits.

Gutenberg themes

Gutenberg themes

What’s next for the block editor? The project is still in active development as a separate plugin, with plans to continue developing the project to provide a greater page building experience across WordPress, not just posts.

Conclusion

There have been many different WordPress theme design trends over the years, and WordPress as a platform has come a long way since 2003. Now, users can control every aspect of their site’s design thanks to the development of page building solutions.

Where will WordPress theme design go in future years? Who knows. The block editor is still new and has a long way to go. Page builders have become the norm, offering customization that users 16 years ago could only dream of.

Meanwhile, on the backend, the WordPress REST API means anything goes — WordPress is completely unrecognizable on decoupled websites, with even static WordPress solutions popping up here and there.

What are your predictions for the future of WordPress theme design trends? Let us know in the comments below.

Don’t forget to join our crash course on speeding up your WordPress site. With some simple fixes, you can reduce your loading time by even 50-80%:

Posted by Web Monkey