Should I use a page builder or expect block themes? – WP Tavern

As a non-developer, I honestly don’t know which direction to take my WordPress site.

I used to rely on themes and even bought premium ones, but over time I got past them. As an artist myself, I prefer to have control over all aspects of my website, from its layout, colors to its fonts. So, I turned to page builders.

I tried Elementor Pro, but it was frustrating how difficult it was to create more advanced layouts without exponentially increasing the size of the page’s DOM. I had to install several Elementor plugins just to get the job done, but it also slowed down the site. Elementor also often conflicted with Gutenberg block styles since I was using the block editor to write articles.

There’s Oxygen, which I’ve heard great reviews from, but its learning curve is too long for me. I also couldn’t get used to having themes turned off completely, as I relied heavily on child themes, knowing a bit about CSS.

Now there’s this whole Gutenberg uprising. FSE is the future, but I can’t adapt at all. Not to mention that there aren’t many FSE themes yet.

I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I don’t know if I should take the Theme Route, the Page Creator Route, or the Gutenberg Route. If I take one of the first two, I’m concerned that they will become obsolete or incompatible in future versions of WordPress as Gutenberg develops. And if I’m taking the Gutenberg route right now, I don’t really have a lot of options yet. As it stands, Gutenberg doesn’t seem to have a built-in way to display custom meta fields like ACF’s. I also don’t want to turn to another premium plugin for this.

How long will Gutenberg’s development take before ordinary but semi-advanced users like me can actually use it? What is actually the best way forward in WordPress right now, at a time when many revolutionary changes are constantly being rolled out?

Isabelle

Before I delve too deeply into this, I want to clear up some terminology for readers. Some of the above uses of “Gutenberg” refer to site editing, a feature that lands in the January release of WordPress 5.9. However, to use the site editor, users will need to enable a block theme. Currently, there is not much to choose from just because this technology is under development.

You are not the only ones wondering when we will move beyond a seemingly endless phase of transition. We’re only now getting to some of the features that were introduced three or four years ago when I was a full-time theme author. I’m deeply into developing all of this on a day-to-day basis, so I can only imagine what it is for non-developers.

The question is difficult to answer without a hyper-specific use case. And, the right solution for one person won’t always be right for another. There are questions of time, resources, budget, etc.

I only like the page building route if you are short on time and have a business riding on it. In the short term, Elementor and others make a lot of sense to get something up and running quickly while still giving you design freedom, assuming you’ve broken the learning curve. If so, there is nothing wrong with going in that direction. I don’t see the builders disappearing anytime soon.

Finding an ideal theme can take a lot of research. As a general rule of thumb, I recommend end users to look for a design that at least matches the overall layout they want. The colors, fonts and other stylistic elements of it are usually easy to change. The average theme these days has options to essentially “strip” the website.

The second part is whether you only want to control the overall design or if you want to customize the layout of the interior pages of the site as well. For the latter, you need something that supports current WordPress functionality.

If you’re looking for something early on, I’d go for a theme that supports block editor styles, bundles multiple custom templates together, and includes a “blank canvas” template for building landing pages. This route gives you something avant-garde but which does not rely on third-party manufacturers. Many of these theme authors are already preparing or building themes for WordPress 5.9 and beyond.

I have a soft spot for Anders Norén’s Eksell theme. It also has a block theme named Tove which is more flexible.

Home page of the Eksell theme.

Be skeptical of themes that only have block editor styles. I’ve seen enough of them just adding custom CSS for a few blocks and calling it a day. It’s nothing more than another bullet point for their marketing material.

If you can afford to wait a few months, you should keep an eye out for the upcoming Twenty Twenty-Two theme. It’s one of the prettiest default themes I’ve seen, but it also has a ton of room for customization. Currently, it offers more than 60 custom templates, which gives you lots of layout options. I expect this block theme to set the bar that everyone else needs to hit.

A group of six screenshots of the Twenty Twenty-Two WordPress theme with different colors and font combinations.
Twenty twenty two color and font variations.

There is one area where page builders excel compared to WordPress at the moment. And that’s with the horizontal layouts. When creating flexible columns or grids for all screen sizes, the Block Editor fails. While the tools of the block system have improved, this gap will not close for some time.

I have mentioned more than once that the models are one of the main components. If a theme has a solid set of block designs focused on layout variations, putting a site together can sometimes be as easy as point and click with the mouse.

If you need to do a lot of layout work, there are several block-based grid plugins. When I needed such a tool, I relied almost exclusively on Automattic’s Layout Grid Block. It does this job and does it well. The plugin bridges the gap between page builders and block editor when paired with a well-designed theme.

It’s all about timing. You don’t want to build your site on one system and recreate it all from scratch in six months. For this reason alone, I would forgo page builders altogether, except when time is limited. Give block themes like the upcoming Twenty Twenty-Two time to make sense.

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