The shape of WordPress shapes the web

I’ve been thinking a little about the design of PowerPoint, WordPress, and lately. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about Edward Tufte’s criticism of how the design of the PowerPoint software is to blame for the Challenger disaster.

I saw Edward Tufte speak about information design a few years ago and one of the points that really stood out was how the use of PowerPoint by NASA  contributed to the failure of the Challenger. He illustrated how the design of PowerPoint encourages oversimplified charts, simplified ideas, poor typography, and linear stories. In his example, those viewing the presentation missed an important detail in a crowded slide with several bullet points. If presented in a different format, the detail might have been noticed and the disaster prevented.

Well, what does this have to do with WordPress?

Shaping content

WordPress is primarily used to publish content of all sorts. Kind of. If you time travel back to its B2 roots looking at the method of publishing for each version, you’ll see that WordPress has always been designed with a single specific purpose: blogging. It’s very clear just looking at the layout of post-new.php.

There’s an input for a title and an area for a single section of content. Those are the base requirements for a blog post. Next to the column are categories, tags, and all sorts of publishing settings. Those are intended to be used for blogging.

The way content is created in WordPress has shaped 25% of the web in a big way. Those of us who use WordPress daily can spot a WordPress site at a glance no matter how hard a designer has worked to shape it into something unique. It’s not hard. The key tells are usually in the structure of the content and sometimes widgets/gravatars/menus can give it away. If there’s a title on a page, it’s probably WordPress. If each section of content is a fairly singular entity, it’s probably WordPress. This is because creating a site with mixed content types or a page with multiple section is difficult.

Many have done a pretty good job hacking around WordPress to push it to do more than blogging. Most of the WordPress sites I see during our local meetup are either a marketing, commerce, or portfolio site. Sometimes they have a blog. Sometimes they don’t. All of them have made some attempt to push the content further than just being a single block. The methods of customization vary.

I’ve seen some people use the text editor to modify the design using a series divs with custom classes in an attempt to create sections on a page. I would advise against this as it can be pretty fragile. An unclosed div tag can wreak havoc on a site. Flipping between the visual editor and the text editor can also cause formatting issues.

The most common customization method I see involves custom fields. A friend of mine pushes Advanced Custom Fields to a whole new level for his client sites. This limits what the client can do and ensures content is presented as intended.

I’ll give you an example of what custom fields can do. Let’s say there’s a section of the site listing team members, their roles, and a bio. Instead of a single large text field, the client is presented with a series of inputs for the member name, their title, and a text area for the bio. The client has the option to create as many team member sections as they want and all of them are rendered exactly as intended.

What I’m getting at is WordPress maybe isn’t as ideal for creating web content as it could be. Both of the methods I listed above are not the easiest to do, especially for someone who isn’t a developer. This could mean a good portion of the web is unintentionally designed in a blog format whether that is ideal for the content or not.

This brings up a few questions I’d like us to seriously consider.

Like the design of PowerPoint was to some degree responsible for the Challenger disaster, is the design of WordPress resulting in potentially undesirable results? (Hopefully, none as dramatic.)

Should the design of content creation in WordPress expand past blogging?

If so, what would the creation of content look like? Would the shape of the editor be determined by the theme? Would it be something more flexible involving direct manipulation? Could it be a mix of both?


  1. Michael, you’ve put words to something I’ve felt at the edges of my consciousness for years. I’ve developed a number of client sites with various custom post types to structure more complex content in a page – most notably the Shows for However, without reasonably heavy-duty developer chops there’s not way to get this done… It sounds like one solution might be to create better GUIs for creating, customizing, managing, and displaying custom post type data.

    1. It sounds like one solution might be to create better GUIs for creating, customizing, managing, and displaying custom post type data.

      That’s totally a possibility. I’m chewing on a few ideas I might post about on WordPress Make Design blog, but I want to make sure we do a good amount of research before we considering messing with people’s editing process.

  2. More than blogs, the Web is driven by feeds. Maybe a question could be: has WordPress the best UX to generated feeds?

  3. Good thoughts. This is one of the bigger criticisms of WP I hear coming people who normally develop on non-WP CMSs (read: Drupal). Custom post types + a good fields API (plus editor UI) will go a long way towards minimizing this criticism, but we also need to consider cases where starting with a post title and post content field are not ideal.

  4. As ablogger, this makes me very afraid that we are going to get a lot of half-baked stuff that does mess with blogging but whithout the benefit of really achieveing something else.

    1. I wouldn’t worry too much. Changes like these don’t make it in without extensive testing and review.

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