Twenty Fifteen WordPress Theme Review: When Less Is More

Twenty Fifteen WordPress Theme Review: When Less Is More

I have to confess: I hate Twenty Fourteen. While I certainly appreciate the work that went into making it, I’ve disliked the visual direction from the first time I saw it. It reminds me of old, overly-busy myspace pages – it’s all a visual distraction to me. Since I love WordPress, I tried getting comfortable with it but I never quite succeeded.

At the time I let my dislike for the theme slide, but now that Twenty Fifteen is about to ship with WordPress, I decided I wouldn’t hold back. So I grabbed WordPress 4.1 Beta 1, rolled up my sleeves and prepared to unleash my pent up aggression on the Twenty Fifteen development team.

But things didn’t quite turn out how I anticipated.

Twenty Fifteen
The Twenty Fifteen theme.

First Impressions

OK, so the first problem with letting loose on the theme is that I love how it looks. Go ahead, take a look at the Twenty Fifteen demo. And now open the Twenty Fourteen demo and switch back-and-forth a couple time.

To me it feels like there are six years between the two themes, to the advantage of Twenty Fifteen.

With last year’s theme I had to figure out where the content was, while with Twenty Fifteen everything is clean and obvious. It follows the flat design trend while adding just enough depth with borders to save the theme from becoming bland.

The predictability of Twenty Fifteen is something I enjoy. Twenty Fourteen has so many breakpoints you never know when the left sidebar is visible, or when the page sidebar will disappear. You don’t know when the excerpt will be shown and when it won’t – at least not intuitively. With Twenty Fifteen, everything seems to fall into place like you would expect.

Difference Between Themes
Simplification from left to right

So far I’ve established the theme looks good – at least to me – but is the beauty only skin deep? Let’s dive in and take a more critical look.

A Quick Tour of Twenty Fifteen

It’s pretty obvious from the visual direction that this theme is returning to the basics: sharing content. The sidebar is there but instead of dominating, it compliments the site, leaving plenty of room for the content section.

Twenty Fifteen is completely monochrome with various tones of grey throughout. There is no color whatsoever, apart from what is supplied by images. Even buttons and in-content links take this approach.

The features also follow this simplification trend. There are no custom widgets or featured sections to fiddle about with, which is a definite plus in my opinion. Themes should basically be skins and should provide the framework in which to place customized functionality using plugins. While Twenty Fourteen didn’t go overboard, it did breach the separation of theme and plugin here and there.

The theme customizer allows you to control the background color of the sidebar and the content area (you can use images for both). While the options end there, this actually allows for some unique designs. Take a look at Brandon Kraft’s website for an aubergine version.

The Good

There are quite a number of things I like about Twenty Fifteen and a sizable list of things I don’t. What makes me lean towards loving it is that among the things I don’t like, many may be bugs and the remainder is pretty minor stuff. Let’s start with what I like.

Gallery Post Format
beautiful Masonry Gallery

The gallery post format is absolutely beautiful. The masonry layout uses less space and allows for interesting visuals; the lightbox functionality makes viewing large versions a cinch. I like that there is no post format icon next to posts. Isn’t a huge gallery indication enough that a post is a gallery? Does a user even care – will they like your gallery less if it is inside a regular post?

Whitespace is applied generously throughout the theme, which makes the whole experience easy on the eyes and draws further attention to the content. If you have very little content it can look a bit odd, but other than these rather edge cases the whitespace is a breath of fresh air.

Twenty Fifteen On Mobile
Twenty Fifteen On an Iphone

The UI for featured posts (pinned posts) is simple, elegant and informative. Calling it “featured” was a great move as it opens up already existing functionality to a broader audience. Where someone might have used a plugin in the past, it’s now obvious you can just pin a post.

 

I’ve mentioned before that predictability is a major selling point for me in Twenty Fifteen. Predictable themes are user friendly themes and the way you can kind of guess how the theme will look on mobile devices and tablets speaks volumes.

Of course it could be “predictably awful” but this is thankfully not the case – responsiveness is beautifully achieved. When you view the site on mobile devices or tablets the sidebar disappears and can be accessed by pressing the hamburger icon in the header. On mobile devices the images span the whole width of the screen serving as a divider between posts.

I like how the multi-level menus expand vertically and the temptation to animate was overcome. Animations on elements like menus look cool when you first see them but quickly become tiring. This behaviour works just fine on mobile devices as well.

While the theme customization is not extensive to say the least, it seems to be enough for now. Sure, it would be nice to switch fonts, change icons and all that good stuff, but it seems like there was a conscientious effort to strip out unnecessary features and to me the tradeoff was worth it.

Since it isn’t used a lot, the attachment page is something I like to pay attention to. It shows how dedicated a developer is to perfecting the theme. In Twenty Fifteen it looks great. Note the inclusion of the image size in the post footer, a nice touch!

The Bad And The Ugly

Time for the cons. I can split them into two groups: things I simply don’t like (the bad) and things which may be bugs, which will be ironed out (the ugly). In no particular order, here goes.

Inconsistent titles for post formats bugged the heck out of me. I don’t mind if some formats have a title while some don’t (quotes, links) but I’m not sure why the image post format has a smaller font size than regular posts.

Post pagination has a lot of unnecessary space between the numbers. In addition, the arrow doesn’t have a state change when you tap it on mobile devices which makes it difficult to figure out if you were successful in turning the page until loading progresses.

Pagination

I think the post footer sections could use an increase in line height. The whole theme is so roomy, this is the one place where things seem squashed up.

Post Footer

The lack of customization may be a sore point. I think the theme is perfect for simple blogs but if you wanted a bit more you will need to use plugins or create a child theme, I’m afraid. While this seems intentional, it will still negatively affect some users.

The same goes for the cut back featureset of Twenty Fifteen. It performs all the necessary blog functions perfectly but does nothing more. Again, for me this is a pro (I’ll explain why below), but many users will find this off-putting.

Final Thoughts – A Minor Rant

I think the job of the default theme is to “personify” the theme creation guidelines for developers and theme expectations for users. It is there as a bright beacon for theme developers to show them best practices, like how a header file should look, how comments should be handled, how to organize theme files, how to document and so on.

Users should be able to turn to Twenty Fifteen and see everything that they should expect from any theme in the repository or on premium marketplaces.

If this is how you view the yearly default WordPress theme, chances are you will like Twenty Fifteen. If you think the theme should include all the fancy new technologies out there and try to create a trend of its own it may fall short for you. I would like to point out that this would also be a perfectly good direction to go in. The issue with Twenty Fourteen for me was that it is nowhere near a modern showcase, but it also isn’t a basic example.

I would find it interesting to see an alternating trend where one year we would see a “back to basics” theme and the next year the theme would be a feature-heavy juggernaut.

The Verdict

My final verdict is that I think Twenty Fifteen is simply amazing. I’ve been meaning to start a personal blog for a while now and this theme has finally given me the push to get started. I came here ready to pick Twenty Fifteen to pieces but I was overpowered before I was able to pull my first punch.

I enjoy the clean look and the focus on sharing beautiful content, whether that means words, pictures, audio or video. I like the vertical rhythm, the layout of the sidebar and the responsive behaviour of the theme.

It is obvious from Twenty Fifteen that a conscientious decision was made to go back to basics and I think the world is better off for it. I think the job of the default theme is not to showcase the fanciest technology available and add unnecessary features like sliders and widgets.

As with any theme, there are countless things to love and hate about Twenty Fifteen. It’s the ratio between the amount of love and hate which will decide if a theme is right for you. For me ,the scale is tipping heavily toward the good, which is why I’ll be using the theme myself. Take another look at the demo and decide for yourself if Twenty Fifteen is for you.

Twenty Fifteen will be released with WordPress 4.1 in December.

Do you agree with me and want to hug me? Do you disagree with me and hope I get multiple paper cuts? Somewhere in-between? Let me know in the comments.