I’ve been a fan of Norén’s work for years. His themes are elegant, but not pretentious; minimalist, but not stark. (He’s also one of the few theme authors I know of who makes active use of post formats.)
Wanting to know more about his take on crafting themes for WordPress, I reached out over Twitter and asked if he’d be interested in answering some questions for a blog post. Here’s what he had to say.
What should people know about you?
My name is Anders Norén. I live in Umeå, northern Sweden, where we’re currently edging towards sub-zero degrees in the daytime, which I’m alright with. The sun setting at four in the afternoon, not so much. I work remotely as a web designer and developer for the Stockholm web agency Odd Alice, together with a small, tight-knit group of people who love building great stuff for the web.
A couple of years back, when I was still at university, I realized that I had way too much spare time and thought that one way to remedy that would be to build WordPress themes and release them for free. It worked out well. I learned a lot about design and web development, started to get some freelance work and – eventually – a full-time job that I’m very happy with.
I also have a lot less free time now. I have released 13 themes on WordPress.org, and many of them have been ported to WordPress.com by Automattic.
What’s your design philosophy?
I’m not sure I have a philosophy, or at least not one that I can successfully put into words. I like trying new thing when I create a theme, but there are usually a couple of foundations that I fall back on: a simple layout, good legibility, a conservative number of accent colors, etcetera. I try to keep it simple, with varied success.
I love typography, and a lot of the time I spend designing my themes goes to fine-tuning the typography.
It feels like the trend in the WordPress theme community in the past few years has been all about size and scope: everything has been growing bigger and more complex, but not necessarily better. I shudder whenever I get a support request from a friend of a friend who has bought a theme on ThemeForest.
There’s a place for the big themes with a hundred layouts and a thousand options, but I think that most users want something simple that does the job they’re looking to get done.
All of your themes are free. Have you ever considered releasing premium themes?
I had one premium theme, Lasseter, up until a couple of months ago. Lasseter was the first theme I released. At the time, in mid 2013, my thinking was that I would release mostly premium themes and put out one or two free themes to draw traffic.
By the time my first two free themes had been released, I realized that I enjoyed building and releasing themes a lot more than I did trying to make money from them.
Lasseter sold a copy or two every now and then, but in comparison, the gratification that I’ve gotten from my free themes has been worth so much more. The experience and attention those themes gave me also led more or less directly to my current job, so it worked out alright on the financial end of things as well.
I occasionally consider going back and building a premium theme – maybe something geared towards businesses, or a WooCommerce or BuddyPress-compatible theme. Then I realize that the thing that excites me about the idea is not actually selling the theme, but designing it, building it and putting it out there. If that’s the case, I might as well release it for free. More of the fun creative stuff, less of the boring business stuff.
It’s probably a good thing that I’m a full-time employee.
What keeps you motivated to create new themes?
In the beginning, receiving positive feedback from people who used the themes was a lot of fun, as was keeping track of the statistics: number of downloads, visitors per day, active users, etc. Watching the download counter tick past 100,000 was pretty exciting.
As time has gone on, the satisfaction I get from that stuff has diminished, but I still love the actual doing of it. I adore the excitement from the initial idea, the endless tinkering with all the little details, and the rush of finally sitting down and actually building the thing.
If I didn’t have the themes, I’d probably spend the same amount of time building personal projects and stashing them away, like an English teacher with the bottom drawer filled with half-finished novels.
Hammering away at the keyboard on a WordPress theme while listening to a Hans Zimmer soundtrack and emptying buckets of coffee is my idea of a good time. I don’t think I could stop if I wanted to.
How are people using your themes? Any amazing examples you’d like to share?
I’m a huge fan of the Hannibal TV series, so I was really excited when it was pointed out to me that Mads Mikkelsen, the Danish actor who plays Hannibal, uses Hemingway (Rewritten, the WordPress.com version) on his official website. It’s probably not the best fit for him, but I’m not complaining.
It’s also been a lot of fun to see people convert my themes to other CMS. There’s a version of Lingonberry for Grav, and I’ve seen Jekyll versions of Lingonberry, Fukasawa and Rams.
My most surreal experience is probably when I watched this video walkthrough of my website by WP Living. That really shook me. It’s easy to forget that there are actual human beings on the other side of all this. To hear the voice of a person on the other side of globe talking about stuff that I’ve hacked together to pass the time was weird beyond words – and fun, of course. But also very, very weird.
How do you handle support?
Badly. In the early days, I did fairly well at keeping up with the WordPress.org support forums and answering the questions that came my way via Twitter and email, but as time went on (and the number of themes increased), it all got away from me.
I used to have an RSS feed to keep up with the WordPress.org support forums for my themes. I deleted that after a couple of months. Keeping up with the support took some time out of the day, but mostly, I was feeling guilty about the support requests I didn’t get around to responding to or couldn’t resolve.
I still occasionally respond to the support requests that trickle into my email and Twitter, but far from all of them. That’s another benefit of releasing the themes for free. I don’t feel the same obligation to respond to support requests as I would if I was charging people for the themes. It took me some time to come to that realization – that I didn’t have an absolute obligation to answer every support request that came my way. I would need to switch to a half-time job if I did.
What have you learned from creating some of the most popular WP themes in existence?
That it’s a strange world we live in. I developed one of my themes, Garfunkel, while on a bus ride to visit a friend in Orsa, Dalarna – in the heart of the Swedish forest regions. I didn’t have a wireless connection of any kind and my battery was almost out, so I was working in my local environment with the screen brightness turned all the way down.
Now, two years later, Garfunkel has been downloaded more than 70,000 times. That disconnect between building something on your computer while in your pyjamas and seeing it used in all manner of strange and unexpected places, like on the website of your favorite Danish actor, is still mind-boggling to me.
What advice do you have for other theme authors?
Learn the basics of typography. Even if you are more interested in developing themes than designing them, a little bit goes a long way. Jason Santa Marias talk On Web Typography is the perfect place to start, and the book Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton is a solid next step if you want to go deeper.
When you do submit your first theme to the WordPress.org theme depository, don’t be discouraged when the automatic theme check gives you 50 notices and another 50 warnings. We’ve all been there. Work your way through them, one by one, and when you upload your next theme to the depository, you’ll get half as many.
Use the WordPress Theme Check plugin if you don’t want to get caught off guard.
I’ll have to try and catch up in 2017.
And finally, above all else: have fun. If you’re releasing a theme for free, your first priority shouldn’t be to build it for everyone, but to build it for yourself. Decide on what seems like a fun thing to do and do it, in your own pace and your own way. The main thing is that you enjoy yourself while you do it. If you do, you’ll do it more often and you’ll take greater care while you’re doing it. Eventually, you’ll get good enough at it that you most probably will be able to make a career out of it, should you want to.
If that doesn’t happen … hey, at least you had fun. Life is too short for you to spend it on boring stuff because you think it might be the beneficial in the long run.