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Why WordPress Was Groundbreaking for Designers

WordPress has been an important piece of the puzzle in both functionality and the intuitiveness of its user experience. But to get a full sense of its impact on design, we need to revisit content management systems (CMS) circa 2003; the time of its release. Here’s why WordPress was groundbreaking for design.

Looking back at the history of web design is a great reminder of how far we’ve come. When we take a trip down memory lane, we often think of the trends that shaped an era. But it’s also important explore the role various tools have played in helping those trends expand and evolve.

WordPress, in particular, has been an important piece of the puzzle in both functionality (which it receives tremendous credit for) and design (which we don’t hear too much about). But to fully get a sense of its impact on design, we need to look back at what content management systems (CMS) were like around the time of the very first WordPress release in 2003.

An Era of Sameness

Yes, there were other open source CMS platforms available before WordPress. Drupal, for example, was initially released in 2000. But one particular system from those days that stands out is PhpNuke. It’s billed as the “first PHP CMS” and was quite popular at the time. These days, it’s in use on a miniscule number of websites.

The software was functional, but was somewhat complicated to design for. Thus, you could often tell which CMS a site was running just by looking at the design. It led to the feeling that using a CMS would box you into specific looks and layouts. That reputation was a hard one to shake.

Personally, it’s one of the reasons I was reluctant to switch from building more traditional static HTML websites (apart from my lack of PHP knowledge). Whatever was gained in functionality, was lost in flexibility. It just didn’t seem worth the effort.

That’s not an indictment of the software itself, just an observation of the limitations designers faced. It also sets the scene for what was to come.

The Theme That Changed Everything

Fast-forward to February 2005, when WordPress 1.5 was released. Along with that new software version came a new default theme included with WordPress called Default (aka Kubrick).

On the outside, the look wasn’t revolutionary. But what had designers so excited was what the theme looked like on the inside. It was, compared to previous CMS templates, relatively easy to customize. If you knew a little bit of CSS, you could take a copy of Kubrick and quickly turn it into something uniquely your own.

I have memories of pulling the theme apart to build a rudimentary blog or two. Even in the days before it was common to use WordPress to power entire websites, I was able to bend and shape Kubrick to match an existing static HTML sites’ look and navigation. That meant both a blog and “main” site could coexist with a fairly seamless look.

Looking back, Kubrick helped to usher in a new era in web design and development. The theme, along with the system it ran on, brought us to a place where both design and functionality were coming together in a way they hadn’t before – at least, not to the masses.

The beauty of this was that those with limited budgets no longer had to choose between something that looked great and something that had the functionality they needed. Instead, designers started to see that they really could have it all in one powerful package.

Democratizing Design

As WordPress continued its meteoric growth towards becoming the world’s most-used CMS, it also spread (intentionally or not) dynamic websites that featured great design. Everyone from large corporate entities to solo entrepreneurs began to see WordPress as a vehicle for building the modern web.

The combination of the software’s popularity and open source philosophy also led to a seriously powerful marketplace for themes and plugins. Suddenly, you didn’t have to be a professional designer to have a beautiful and highly-functioning website. Instead, it became a matter of choosing the theme that matched your needs and customizing it to your taste.

But web professionals have also harnessed the theme market to facilitate a more efficient way to build websites. Themes can serve as a great starting point for projects – saving everyone involved both time and money.

Put it all together and there is no longer an excuse for anyone to have a poorly-designed website. No matter an individual’s or company’s purpose, needs or budget – WordPress has helped to create an ecosystem where everything is well within reach. They have not only accomplished their goal of democratizing publishing, but design as well.

Always in Style

Design is an ever-evolving art. So as new trends come to light, it’s important to recognize those shifts and adopt them in ways that fit into your brand. Again, this is a strength of systems like WordPress. Because the theme is separate from a site’s content, it’s much easier to change along with the times. This helps to prevent things from getting stale and outdated.

In the days before WordPress, redesigning a website was often a monumental task. Now it could be as simple as switching themes inside the WordPress dashboard. It still may require some tweaks to get things just as you want them, but the process is much more efficient than it was in the past.

And the sheer variety of what can be done in terms of design is limited only by your imagination. Whether you’re building themes from scratch or buying them out in the market, there isn’t a look or layout you can’t achieve.

For example, if you’re looking to go minimalist or sport a material design look, you have an abundance of options. Similarly, there are designs focused less on specific trends and more on industries or other niche uses. Subjects like photography, business, ecommerce and landing pages are among the plethora of possibilities.

There is literally a world of design options now available at our fingertips.

Looking Towards the Future

As both design and web technologies continue to move forward, WordPress looks to be preparing for the future. For one, the upcoming Gutenberg editor will allow for page content that is more design-friendly when compared to the “classic” editor. Again, it opens up a new world to professionals and novices alike.

There’s also been a lot of talk about how more JavaScript-based applications could impact WordPress down the road. That could change the way themes are created and the way we consume web content. It may end up that the web looks and functions more like an app than anything else.

Regardless of what the future brings, WordPress has already had a huge role in making design something that we can all access and implement into our own websites. That in itself is quite an accomplishment.

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About the Author Eric Karkovack

Eric Karkovack is a web designer with well over a decade of experience. You can visit his business site here. In July 2013, Eric released his first eBook: Your Guide to Becoming a Freelance Web Designer. You can follow his rants on Twitter @karks88.