Fixing the theme customization experience

Have you ever used Instagram? If you did, you’re probably familiar with the filters it offers, that let you change the look and feel of a photo instantly. It’s very easy and satisfying – just swipe through available filters and apply with a tap.

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Under the hood, each of these filters is a combination of photo settings like brightness, contrast, saturation, white balance, etc. A lot of those individual settings are available on Instagram, too, but playing with them is not nearly as fun. Although these settings give you virtually unlimited possibilities, and Instagram makes them easy enough to use, they require certain knowledge to create something beautiful. In inexperienced hands they’re just a rope to hang yourself with.

Over at WordPress.com we’ve been struggling with a similar problem. Our customers can customize their sites with different colors, fonts, and images. Used correctly, those tools can produce a unique and attractive website, and enhance the original design. Unfortunately there’s more potential for failure than success.

It takes knowledge and experience to put together a successful font pairing or color palette. To make matters worse, our tools don’t make this task easier either. Instead of giving our customers granular control over individual elements of a website, we’re offering bulk font and color editing. On one hand this is good, because customizing each item on a page would be extremely tedious. The trade-off is limited control and precision, and ultimately frustration with our product. We’re not helping our customers succeed, to put it mildly.

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We’re making bad design decisions way too easy.

This frustrates me as a themer, too. For each theme I designed, I could easily envision a few different variations, but had to settle on one “vanilla” version and keep my fingers crossed that our customers will see the potential. My colleague, Thomas Guillot, touched on this in his post “One Theme May Hide Another”.

Enter style packs – a pre-defined set of fonts, colors, and images in one neat package. Much like Instagram filters, style packs let you change the look and feel of your site instantly. And the best part is, they will be available to all our customers! 🎉🎉🎉

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Aside from being a fun experience for our customers, I’m hoping style packs will help re-kindle the passion for us themes too. Releasing a theme is a lot of work, and it’s easy to get tired with the design by the end of the process. Style packs open up the door on design collaboration, something that we’re doing on a very limited scale right now. Outside of the Theme Team, we have other amazing designers working at Automattic, and this way they too could get involved!

The road ahead

We’re just starting our experiments with style packs. So far we’ve introduced them in one soon-to-be-released theme, but we’re already thinking about what’s next. Some ideas we have floating around include releasing seasonal- and holiday-inspired style packs or collaborating with outside designers on special edition style packs, to name a few. While these opportunities excite me as a designer, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of what’s really important: to help our customers succeed by making it easy and fun to create a site that they can be proud of.

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