WordPress developer Mike McAlister has launched Ollie, his first block theme, into public beta. McAlister, whose theme company Array Themes was acquired by WP Engine in 2018, along with the Atomic Blocks plugin, recently departed from his role at the company to pursue other projects.
Ollie supports all the latest Site Editor features, including global styles, patterns, templates, and template parts. It is a beautiful, multipurpose theme of the high caliber one might expect from McAlister, a veteran developer whose past products were well known for their minimalist and clean design.
Ollie includes an impressive set of more than 50 custom block patterns, making page building a delight. There are page sections for testimonials, company logos, multiple hero designs, pricing tables, various headers and footers, calls to action, and more. Ollie includes six different full-page patterns for the homepage, about, profile, features, pricing, and a download page. They are featured on the theme’s live demo under the Patterns menu item.
Ollie includes seven style variations, with blue, green, orange, pink, red, and teal accent color palettes in addition to the default.
Like many other block themes, Ollie is speedy, getting top scores on Google’s Pagespeed Insights.
“One of the most powerful performance features is the selective loading of assets,” McAlister said. “Instead of loading a large stylesheet on every page, Ollie only loads the styles needed on the page. This results in a much smaller page size, far less page requests, and an instantly-loading page, which search engines love.”
After testing Ollie, I found the user experience to be friendly and an accurate representation of one of the taglines for the theme: “Get a 40 hour head start.” As soon as users install the theme and click “Customize,” they are taken directly to the Site Editor with the front page template pre-populated to match the demo site. This, combined with all the improvements in the Site Editor in WordPress 6.1, creates a smooth editing experience.
Although it hasn’t been officially released yet, Ollie could be one of the next majorly successful block themes, with its sheer number of patterns and flexibility for so many different use cases.
Ollie is currently on GitHub during the public beta but McAlister plans to get it approved for WordPress.org after more testing. He is not yet sure whether he will be jumping back into the commercial theme market.
“With this first block theme, my goal is simply to learn as much as possible about block themes, how users are using them, and what kind of potential there is for a premium offering,” McAlister told the Tavern. “This flagship theme will remain as an educational tool and will be free for all to use. Although I have some ideas for monetization, the reality is that we don’t know much about how users will take to block themes or what kind of premium features they’re willing to pay for yet.
“We’re very early in this new paradigm, so I’m taking the opportunity to ask lots of questions learn about the problems users are facing. What I do know is that any modern commercial WordPress product needs a supreme customer experience and a wealth of quality education to help users navigate all of these new features and drive adoption.”
WordPress.org has 286 block themes available and even the best ones have just a few thousand active installs. Building block themes that people will want to use is a new frontier, even for McAlister whose former company was a war-horse in the Classic Themes era.
“Block themes are going to be a game changer for many different personas of WordPress users,” McAlister said. “Being able to customize virtually every aspect of your site is super powerful, but it means that block themes have a lot more moving parts than classic themes. Theme.json, global styles, patterns, templates, template parts — all of these have to be accounted for and they all have to work together seamlessly for an excellent block theme experience.”
WordPress theme developers are still getting a handle on these changes but the Themes Team is putting a stake in the ground by making block theming the focus of the Theme Handbook overhaul. Although Classic Themes will still have a chapter in the handbook, the Themes Team has made it clear that block themes are “the present and future of WordPress.”
“Since a lot of the block theme building is done in the editor, it requires a new mastery of the editor that few are intimately familiar with yet,” McAlister said. “To build patterns or layouts, you need to know which blocks to use, how to structure them effectively, how to leverage your design system in theme.json, and you need a good design sense to pull it all together.
“However, when it all finally comes together, block themes provide an unmatched site building and editing experience in comparison to classic themes. I’m very optimistic about the opportunity to revitalize the WordPress theme space, but it’s going to take a lot of work and collective education to get there.”