Open letter to a future default theme lead

It’s exciting, isn’t it? Being part of the release squad and getting to lead the theme that will be preinstalled on new WordPress sites for a full year. It’s also kind of scary, right?

Being the default theme lead is a little different than other roles in the release squad. Since we only have one default theme per year, you can’t shadow anyone during the previous release if you know you’re assuming this role before the previous release is finished. I hope this post helps with that if you are considering applying to this role or have been selected.

For me, it has been an incredible experience to be a part of the 6.4 release squad and the co-lead of Twenty Twenty-Four alongside Jessica Lyschik. I wanted to write a retrospective that could help someone in my shoes on a future default theme because the journey has been both exciting and bumpy at times, and I’d love to do my best to ease the way for the next.

Some general advice

  • Ask questions. Any. All of them. Chances are you will feel a little lost at the start. Information most likely won’t come to you. You will have to search for it.
  • Learn who can help. Since you can’t shadow anyone on the previous release, your best bet is to reach out to others as soon as possible for any advice you might need. Keep reading to find out who helped me the most during this project.
  • Learn that you are never on your own. Not only will you have your co-lead and the rest of your squad. The best thing about working in open source is that you have access to some of the most talented people in the industry. They will be there to help you.
  • Be proactive. About making decisions, asking for direction, and asking for advice. Don’t let things happen or wait for someone to reach out. Most likely, it will be late if you do that, and time is usually not a resource you will have for this project.

Unlike other features, the default theme is possibly the only project on the release that can’t be punted if it’s not ready. This is both a little unnerving but also a good thing. It means you will be widely supported by core, editor, and release folks alike. They want you to succeed, and they will come to help as soon as they notice they are needed. Rely on them. They will be your best allies.

What you need to look out for

  • Documentation. I did my best to curate the best readme file I could for the contributors and future default themes. It helped me a lot that previous default theme leads did the same, and we could build on top of that.
  • Work ahead on pre-commit hooks for block patterns. The biggest time sink for Twenty Twenty-Four was formatting the patterns for readability, adding translation functions to them, making the image links dynamic, or removing unneeded attributes. Try to automate this early (hopefully, you won’t need to! but if you do, make this a priority).
  • Think about the contributor’s workflow when reviewing markup and contributing fixes. Sometimes, a user will not necessarily know about those format issues that patterns have, and they just want to copy and paste the markup from the editor to the PR, which can cause regressions. The previously mentioned automation can help.
  • Track editor-related issues early and figure out who the stakeholders are. Find out who can work on the key issues that affect the theme and prioritize following up on that. That will be the point you will have less control over and the one that is more prone to fail for reasons you may not be able to predict.
  • While most of the work will be reviewing contributors’ work, the key part of your role is keeping an eye on the big picture and being ready to make high-level decisions. You won’t always have the answers, but you will have people around you to help you figure out the best outcome.

Timeline and project management

WordPress 6.4 Development Cycle

  • The design gets announced. This moment is key, and you won’t know when this is happening until the day is close. Be in contact with the designer and the release leads to prepare. It’s the moment when development can start working, and you should pre-plan for this date. Ask for the repo for the theme to be created, prepare a list of initial issues, draft a readme file, and make screenshots of the design for the issues as soon as you can access the design.
  • Beta 1. This is when you first start committing your changes to core. You will have people helping out with this. Work can continue as usual during Beta since the theme doesn’t add new features.
  • RC 1 and hard string freeze. Most of the work should be finished at this point, and only minor polishing and debugging are left to do. RC 1 marks the string freeze period, and you can no longer commit new translateable strings to core.
  • Release day. For us, it was very much stress-free, the work was finished long ago, and we didn’t need to commit more than a couple of bug fixes.

People who were a great help

I would like to send my appreciation to these people who, I’m sure, would be happy to help if you ever need them. As am I; please feel free to contact me with questions if you are planning to be a default theme lead or if you have questions about block themes in general.

  • Sarah, editor tech lead of 6.4 and default theme lead for Twenty Twenty-Three. She walked me through the process similarly to what I did in this post. Her help was invaluable to me.
  • Jessica, my co-lead for the theme. It was awesome having her share the work load for this project.
  • Bea, the theme designer, thank you for your patience and your constant design reviews to keep the quality of the design to the highest standards.
  • Jeff, default theme lead for Twenty Twenty-Two. He helped Jessica and me with questions about the process before the release cycle started.
  • Carolina, default theme lead for Twenty Twenty-One, helped us throughout the development process. Thank you for your accessibility reviews and your patience.
  • Rich, thank you for the design perspective and high-level guidance all over.
  • Jonathan and Felix, thanks for reviewing our core commits and sanity-checking all the steps along the way.
  • And, of course, the 100+ contributors who worked with us to make Twenty Twenty-Four the awesome theme it is today. It was a blast working alongside you all.


One response to “Open letter to a future default theme lead”

  1. Love this post! Thanks for taking the time to write it up and share for future default theme leads.

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