Exploring types of WordPress Themes in a full site editing world

Block, FSE, Hybrid, Universal? What Do We Call These New WordPress Themes?

Block, FSE, Hybrid, Universal?

Ellen Bauer, developer and co-owner of Elma Studio, asked the question that many have been asking on Twitter last week. What do we call these new types of WordPress themes made of blocks? You were not the first to ask. The question was also asked via a Post Status Slack chat earlier this week.

The short answer is that these new issues are "collective issues."

Block, FSE, Hybrid, Universal? What Do We Call These New WordPress Themes?

The WordPress theme team decided to use this term in December 2021. The consensus during their meeting was to clarify the difference between block themes and classic themes.

The terms also grew organically with the arrival of the new trait system. Block attributes are attributes that are actually created from blocks. The long term goal should be to just call them "attributes", but the "block" prefix will be with us for a while.

The long answer is more accurate. As Anne McCarthy pointed out in her discussion of the state of publication, there are now four types of topics:

  • barricade (block).
  • classic.
  • hybrid.
  • all over the world.

Technically, developers can create a completely custom theme system. That's how flexible WordPress is, but we'll stick with the official definitions for a moment. There are enough terms for our little dictionary to be customized as is.

Lock Topics - Block Themes

Editing a block theme through the site editor.

Block themes have been officially supported since the release of WordPress 5.9 last month. They give users access to new tools, such as the site editor and global-style interfaces. These features have replaced many previous settings pages, such as customization screens and widgets.

Twenty Twenty two is the first default value supported by this new toolset. There is also a small but growing number of other block themes.

Why don't we call them FSE themes? The complete site edition is a collection of components and not a single thing. WordPress has released several of these components prior to version 5.9, such as the template editor, block-based widgets, and theme. json support. In a sense, a classic theme with any level of feature support is also an FSE theme.

What sets block themes apart from classic themes is that they are built from HTML templates made entirely of blocks. This automatically enables the site editor, template editor, global styles interface, and more.

Classic and hybrid themes

Twenty Twenty customization, a classic theme.

I have grouped classic and hybrid themes together because there is no need to differentiate between them.

Classic WordPress themes are the ones we've known and loved all these years. They have PHP based templates in most cases. There are some, like Foxhound, that are made primarily of JavaScript. However, none have the necessary block HTML templates to qualify as a block theme.

Hybrid themes are classic themes that have adopted one or more FSE components, such as the template editor or theme. json.

I don't separate the two types of themes because we've never done that before when themes adopt new features. For example, when the navigation menu system was first introduced, there was no need to name themes differently depending on whether they were compatible with the new menu system. The same can be said for most other features in the past.

In any case, the official theme directory may need to expand its tags to include additional features as they emerge. Filters allow users to search for the things they want from a topic.

Universal Themes

Universal themes work in both a classic and site editor context. Ben Dwyer offered a more detailed explanation via the Theme Shaper blog last year:

Universal themes are an attempt to bridge the gap between classic themes and block themes, adding a few layers to a block theme to make it work. A Universal theme is a block theme that can be used by the full Site Editor, but can also be configured in a more classic way. That means you can use classic WordPress tools like the Customizer, Widgets menus and panels, as well as the Site Editor.

I haven't seen much interest from developers in creating universal themes. I'm not sure there is one, at least not in the official directory.

It's too early to tell if they'll eventually catch up with topic authors. Support for classic and modern WordPress tools probably only makes sense for the most popular themes. Their authors may need to rework their code base, opt for more FSE features, and move from a classic/hybrid state to universal support. If the demand is there, surely some will meet it.

The support and maintenance burden would be unappealing to most. A clean break from classic is probably the best route for developers to build with the latest WordPress features.

Naming things is difficult, but it is crucial to have a level playing field between participants in discussions. The distinction between classic and block themes is probably the most useful.

I doubt the terms matter much to the average WordPress user. They need to know if a theme supports feature X or feature Y. It's been a while since theme tags (filters) have been revised, and many are outdated. It might be worth reviewing them to make sure we're meeting user needs today.


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