WordPress as a Design Platform: An Exploration

I make much of my living with WordPress. But, the content editor leaves a lot to be desired. WordPress can sometimes fall short from a UI (user interface) design standpoint. 

Any website building platform should be flexible enough to accommodate a custom design and have a supportive UI to produce a website quickly. The top requirement is that the tools don’t get in the way. Too often, when working with WordPress, the software does unexpected things, or the UI is just not intuitive.

Ideally, I want something that is a visual website design platform (think Photoshop but with code). Can WordPress work as a design platform? How does it stack up against the alternatives?

From the Classic Editor to Gutenberg

If you’ve worked with WordPress for a few years, you are probably familiar with the classic editor and the new block editor called Gutenberg.

Gutenberg had a rough start and was not well received when it was first released. It was buggy, the editing experience was uneven, and it was frustrating to use. Most preferred the classic editor. 

Custom WordPress Themes

Many WordPress developers create custom themes from scratch. A custom theme combines custom fields, custom theme code, and the classic or new block editor.

With this approach, the editing experience is unique for each theme. The classic editor works well for this approach, though ACF (Advanced Custom Fields) also works with the new block editor.

While custom themes are appropriate for unique functionality and designs, most clients need a straightforward website and the ability to edit the website moving forward. 

Creating a custom theme from scratch may not always be necessary, as we can now create many designs within the new block editor. 

Block-based WordPress Themes

There are a few options for creating website designs within WordPress. You can use a page builder such as Elementor or WPBakery Page Builder or embrace the new editor with a block plugin to supplement the Gutenberg experience.

I believe the best option is a block-based theme and a block plugin such as Stackable. For example, combine the Blocksy theme and the Stackable plugin or the Neve theme and Otter Blocks.

The combination of the new WordPress editor, a block theme, and a block plugin, gives you flexibility moving forward and creates a good editing environment for your client. While not perfect, it is a step in the right direction.

Site-Building and Maintenance

The unfortunate reality is that building a site with WordPress and the block editor can be a challenge. And that is putting it politely.

Even the recent redesign of the WordPress.org homepage met with criticism from Matt Mullenweg, the head of Automattic and original creator of WordPress.

On the “hours not weeks” to implement — it’s such a basic layout, it’s hard to imagine it taking a single person more than a day on Squarespace, Wix, Webflow, or one of the WP page builders.

Matt Mullenweg

The new layout is well-designed and a modern update to the homepage. But this design would be quick to produce with Squarespace, and it would take additional time to get it right using Gutenberg.

Block Editor Issues

The editing experience within WordPress is just not up to the same level of fluidity and ease of use as something like Squarespace or even Elementor.

There are many options in the WordPress editor, and block settings are hidden in the menus. With a block plugin, there is a separate panel for the options alongside the page settings. In addition to that, there is another panel for the theme settings.

If you are a designer or a developer, it’s relatively easy to figure out and develop a workflow. But, for clients especially, this experience can be confusing.

Page Builders 

Page builders replace the WordPress editor with a custom UI. Designing with a page builder is one way of getting around the confusion of the block editor. 

Elementor

Elementor is a popular page builder for a good reason. It’s relatively easy to work with, although it has its quirks. With the Pro version and various add-ons, you can create any type of page design you imagine. 

I prefer to use other page builders, but I’ve worked with Elementor on multiple sites, and it functions well. 

Uncode Theme

The Uncode theme includes the WPBakery page builder. WPBakery is not unique to Uncode, but Uncode does extend its functionality. 

I have used Uncode for multiple sites, including some custom designs. It generally works well; however, you are committing to the WPBakery page builder plugin. 

If you have ever tried changing the theme for a website that uses this page builder, you will know how challenging it is to remove all the shortcodes. Still, it may be appropriate for a small marketing site. 

The Uncode theme includes a front-end builder and a unique wireframing tool that allows you to set up page designs quickly. It can be a fast way to set up a website without using the block editor or a website builder such as Squarespace. 

In the long run, it may be best to move away from page builders such as this, but it’s still a very effective tool. 

Brizy

If you haven’t seen Brizy yet, you should check it out. Brizy is the closest thing to having a Squarespace-like UI within WordPress.

Brizy is a visual editor similar to Elementor, though it’s more intuitive and easier to use. Brizy pricing is also more competitive, with a lifetime pricing option. Instead of a recurring subscription for Elementor, there is a one-time payment for Brizy.

There are some drawbacks to Brizy, such as not being able to load Adobe fonts. You are limited to Google fonts, and it doesn’t integrate with the fonts already on your site. 

The color palettes are also unique to the plugin and don’t seem to reflect the theme colors. You should know that Brizy will replace your content entirely as well. It’s best to start with a blank page.

Brizy may be most helpful for building marketing and sales pages. It would be challenging to design an entire website with this plugin, but it has its uses for individual pages. 

Oxygen Builder & Breakdance

Another notable project is the Oxygen Builder. Oxygen is a page builder that lets you edit any portion of the website, such as the header or footer. Oxygen replaces your theme entirely. 

Oxygen takes over the WordPress experience like other page builders and provides a custom interface. It has advanced features such as dynamic data and a Gutenberg block integration. 

Like Brizy, Oxygen is a one-time purchase making it more competitive than other subscription-based page builders. 

However, the original team has recently introduced another page builder called Breakdance. It’s hard to tell whether Oxygen will continue to evolve or if the focus is shifting to the new page builder.

Bricks

Bricks is a relatively new full-site editor and page builder that looks promising. The UI is similar to Brizy and other page builders. The team behind it is offering lifetime licenses as a new product.

Full Site Editing

Even though it seems to be the golden age of page builders, WordPress is beginning to integrate features available in these builders. There is an effort to make WordPress easier to use and a more complete website design tool. 

The new approach is called full site editing. You can experiment with this by installing the 2022 theme or one of the full site editing themes in the wordpress.org directory.

Full site editing is still somewhat experimental, and I have not found the features helpful yet. It’s not polished enough to compete with more mature themes that employ the WordPress customizer, such as Blocksy. 

Still, full site editing is promising, and it will be interesting to watch it evolve.

The Competition

All CMS platforms have limitations. WordPress is still my top choice for SEO. Despite its limitations, it’s a solid content management system to use.

Squarespace is a great alternative, especially for its ease of use and design speed. But there is little control over the code, performance, or fine-tuned SEO settings.

Webflow is another capable platform, especially for producing custom designs. They are clearly going after the design market with their advertising. 

Wix has also stepped up to the design plate with their Editor X. WordPress has some serious competition from the hosted all-in-one platforms.

WordPress theme and plugin developers continue to push the platform forward. The core block editor will evolve. But WordPress will continue to have growing pains as full-site editing matures.

Wrapping Up

The editing experience in WordPress is still a hybrid approach. It’s not entirely a visual design platform, but we have moved on from the classic editor and are no longer just editing text. There is a bit of design mixed in.

Adding visual builders such as Brizy or Bricks allows WordPress to compete with other systems such as Squarespace or Webflow.

Designers want to quickly build a website for their clients and not sort through endless settings. When designing, the tools need to be smooth enough to recede into the background and not get in the way. And clients want to be able to edit the website without much hassle.

We’re not quite there yet, but we are getting closer. Until WordPress core catches up, full site editors and page builders such as Brizy fill the gap and are the tools of choice for those that want a visual design platform.

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