Quick interview with Ben Gillbanks (Pro Theme Design)

Hi could you tell us a little about yourself and background?

Hi! I am a wannabe game developer who fell into web design. I studied digital art at university, specialising in game art, but the course was broad and covered web design (and sound design, special effects, all sorts). After graduating I got a job at Miniclip.com as a game artist, but the company was small, and when they found out I knew more about web design than they did I moved over to doing more of that. Eventually I was promoted to director of web development. In 2005 I started using WordPress, in 2007 I partnered with Darren Hoyt to create a premium theme shop; ProThemeDesign.com. In 2015 I left Miniclip to set out on my own, working exclusively with WordPress.

When did you first stumble upon WordPress?

In 2005 I wanted a better way to manage the content on my website. Previously I had made my own, poorly coded, content management system but it didn’t have any dynamic features. This was around the time when all the cool kids had a web dev blog so I thought I would try out the most popular software. I downloaded loads of them, and WordPress was the only one I could get running without jumping through hoops. I got hooked really quickly and soon had a new website and, shortly after, a free theme available to download.

What product / website of yours are you most proud of and why?

I imagine most theme developers say this but the last thing I made is the one I am proudest of. With every new project I try to do something new or different and so I always learn something new with each theme. The culmination of this is my starter theme called Granule; you can check it out on Github – https://github.com/BinaryMoon/granule. Granule takes a lot of cues from _s but it also includes a lot of default functionality that I like to use and _s doesn’t include.

Non-development wise; I have also partnered with Alex Denning to write a weekly WordPress newsletter called MasterWP (https://masterwp.co) and we’re really pleased with the reception that has had. We’re not yet a year old and already have over 1300 subscribers – with more joining each week – and our sponsorships are sold out into February next year.

Yes it’s saturated, but there can be opportunities for the right products. These days I think you need to find your niche, a micro niche, and target it with a laser focus.

Have you had any epic fails so far that you’d like to share with us?

TimThumb. Probably doesn’t need any introduction. It was used so so popular, and I believe inspired WordPress featured images. But it was also horrible when it was compromised. Thankfully the community has been really good about it. I have been a lot more careful about publishing things for others to use since then. These days I think a lot more about security when developing themes and plugins and I always try to get a second opinion (code review) to ensure things are as tight as can be.

In your opinion, is the premium themes / plugins market saturated? Are there any opportunities out there?

Yes it’s saturated, but there can be opportunities for the right products. These days I think you need to find your niche, a micro niche, and target it with a laser focus. Trying to make anything generic is a really hard sell now. I have an advantage in that I sell my themes on wordpress.com. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be able to live on what I earn from prothemedesign.com. If you’re a small theme shop then I think you will really struggle unless you have a tightly defined audience.

The plugins market is different. I would still try to find a niche, but there’s more opportunity there. As long as your plugin is coded well, so that it works with all themes, then you can have a much wider audience. The hard part is coming up with that winning idea. It’s something I keep thinking about but I’ve yet to find something I think I could do better than anyone else.

What’s your advice to new theme / plugin authors?

Find a niche and dominate it. Make the best thing you can. Get feedback from others, ideally people you don’t know or who will be honest. Build the simplest thing you can that will do what you want and see if people are interested in it. Don’t spend loads of time making something amazing without validating the idea in some way.

If you had the chance to add a single feature in WordPress core, what would it be?

I don’t really have any big wants. There’s a few smaller things I would like to see tweaked/ improved but in general, I’m pretty happy working with the things we have.

At a push – I’ve always felt a page builder that works ‘the WordPress way’ would be nice. I guess Gutenberg is going to be that and more. Live editing is also the future. There’s a lot of push back against the customiser but I think being able to edit the site directly, and not in an abstracted editor, would solve a lot of problems.

I’m really liking the incremental improvements and refinements that have happened over the last few WordPress releases. All the changes in WP 4.9 are great, especially those in the Customizer that are helping to polish WordPress to a shine.

Is the inclusion of the REST API a decision in the right direction and why?

I was quite excited about the REST API initially but it doesn’t seem to have taken off. Personally, as a themer, I don’t think it’s that interesting, but for app and plugin developers I think it has a lot of potential.

I went to a few WordCamps around the time the REST API was being developed and every other talk was about the REST API – but since then it’s fallen a bit flat. I think it needs more documentation, or maybe just some marketing, to get people interested in it. One of the selling points of the API is that WordPress “haters” would be able to develop for WordPress without touching the codebase but as far as I know that hasn’t happened. I can only assume this is because nobody outside WordPress is aware of the potential – or maybe they just don’t care and are happy with what they have.

What’s your take on project Gutenberg?

Like the REST API I think Gutenberg also has a lot of potential, and it will clearly have wider use than the REST API. However I am worried that the motivation is coming from the needs of WordPress.com rather than the needs of the community. I know Matt has said this isn’t the case, but I think it would be very hard for him to not be influenced by his business even if it’s subconsciously. This doesn’t mean I think they’re doing the wrong thing. The project looks great, but I don’t think they have done a very good job of communicating with the community.

I think it’s great that Matt has stepped up and is leading WordPress from the front again. Before Gutenberg WordPress appeared aimless and was looking like it was going to stagnate; all the innovation was coming from plugins. This has turned around quite rapidly and WordPress is once again looking to the future.

As a theme developer I have some concerns with Gutenberg. The idea of everything being made in Gutenberg with users being given the freedom to design the site as they see fit. That’s a scary thing. It’s hard for a designer to relinquish control in this way. I have a vision of all sites being single column stacked boxes with garish colours and terrible font choices – the sort of thing thegrid.io makes :)

Gutenberg will also change a theme developers role considerably – but how exactly remains to be seen. My prediction is that the future of WordPress themes is CSS. PHP and Javascript will still be there, but they will be needed less and less. I’m probably worrying about nothing but as someone who earns their living from themes I think I have to consider these things.

What’s your current hardware / software setup. Any apps you can’t live without?

I’ve recently purchased a new MacBook Pro. My previous MBP was a 2011 model and starting to show it’s age. When in my office my MBP sits on a Roost stand and I use a magic keyboard and trackpad to control it (I haven’t used a mouse in about 7 or 8 years). Software wise – I use Atom, Sketch, CodeKit, iTerm2, and Chrome. For photo editing I use Acorn. I try to keep quite lean and like to experiment with new software – I think the Serif apps looks really interesting. I’m not a fan of Adobes subscription model so haven’t tried their latest apps but their Sketch competitor looks nice – I hope Sketch is taking notes.

My current favourite application is unrelated to WordPress or web development. It’s a pixel art app called Aseprite (https://www.aseprite.org/). I make games on the side, and it’s just so much fun. If you want to try making retro game style art, then it’s well worth downloading.

What’s your typical day like?

I’m a father of a 2 year old, and I work from home, so there’s no typical day. Generally my son wakes me between 5 and 6 am (no alarm needed), and I then spend the day doing things with my wife and child. I try to get a couple of hours of work in while my son has a nap and when he goes to bed is when I start work properly. I’ve become a lot more focused & efficient since having a child. I don’t watch much tv, and casual internetting is a thing of the past. If it wasn’t for smartphones I probably wouldn’t be on Twitter or Facebook. It’s a challenge but I feel very fortunate that I am able to spend so much time with my family – I know many aren’t so lucky.

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