What’s in a Name? Gutenberg and the Future of WordPress Content Editing

There are a few names in history that are connected to people who have so dramatically changed the world that the mention of their names becomes a gateway to any number of ideas, possibilities, and hopes. I only need to say “Einstein” to conjure up not only the renowned physicist but also the wide range of how his name has been used, from the popular line of baby toys and bagel stores to the sarcastic name we’ve all called that friend or the legitimate compliment for someone whose vision of the world truly seems to be world-shaking. When we see or use these names, we draw upon these associations, positively or negatively, to touch upon a vision of the world and communicate that this may be another one of those moments, a person or a thing that could be as important as the original referent.

With WordPress’s upcoming release of the Gutenberg editor, it is impossible not to be reminded of the creation of the world-altering printing-press of Johannes Gutenberg, a development that expanded access to the printed word beyond simply the wealthy and elite but to everyone. It was an egalitarian moment in history when the written word, a primary source of knowledge and exploration, practically restricted to a privileged few, became available for use to the wider public, opening the floodgates of knowledge for generations to come. So what is this barrier-shattering breakthrough that we are about to receive from WordPress? Is this update going to introduce some must-have functionality for your museum website? Is it going to completely alter the internet landscape, equipping every user with the tools previously available only to the esoteric world of web developers?

As with most claims to be the next great breakthrough, the answer is yes and no.

There is certainly a lot to be excited about with regards to Gutenberg. The reason for this prestigious namesake rests in the advent of “blocks” in WordPress’s core code. These blocks are small pieces of pre-defined code that can be inserted, reordered, and reused with a few clicks of a mouse. These blocks offer a monumental step forward from the traditional WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) text editor in that they will allow you to insert all sorts of different content types and some basic layout structure into the main content area of your WordPress site, expanding the simple embeds and text of the current default WordPress editor to a wide and glorious world of columns and galleries and buttons and CTA’s, or anything else you would like to develop, all with the simple click of a button. This veritable treasure trove of possibilities, tailored with an intuitive UI experience for adding and removing blocks, will make your content input a streamlined and joyous experience. And I haven’t even mentioned one of the biggest changes: the admin input interface looks much more like the frontend view of your site.

That’s right. The styles and functionality of the backend view are ostensibly the same as the frontend view.

Imagine with me for a moment the possibilities:

Image from WordPress.com

You log in to your site. You find the page you want to edit. You click “edit” and eureka! There are no more vague [shortcodes] in your content area or guessing at what your styles will look like by going through the often tedious process of having multiple tabs open and saving and reloading your page and your cache has not cleared yet so your changes aren’t appearing and reloading while holding shift to clear your cache and going back to the editor and tweaking and reloading… I think you get the picture. Instead, you click on a dropdown menu to find the appropriate block type for the content you want to share, you select it and immediately before you appears the new block or even an entire set of blocks just waiting for your video, form, link, text, or any number of other content, fully styled and frontend-perfect, ready to be adjusted and tweaked to your heart’s desire. And this truly-WYSIWYG experience for content is just the beginning.

The long-term goals of Gutenberg are not just to improve content entry but to eventually improve the entire site-customization process, from headers to footers and everything in between. Beyond simply editing your body content with this WYSIWYG block functionality, perhaps someday you will be able to fully customize and edit every aspect of your site directly in WordPress. No more diving into the deep waters of your website’s code (which may raise your friendly neighborhood developer’s anxiety a bit) or installing a plugin that purports to do exactly what you want to do (cue a single tear on each developer’s face everywhere). Now every aspect of your website will be at your fingertips. This is the dream, right? Personally, I get a little exhausted just thinking about it.

This kind of functionality is not necessarily new to WordPress. Even the idea of reusable blocks of content, the very source of the namesake, is not as novel as you might imagine. There are plenty of page-builders, themes, and plugins that offer this kind of content input beyond a simple WYSIWYG text editor and give you an almost, if not completely, frontend editing experience that removes many of the barriers between content input and frontend display. Elementor, Divi, Beaver Builder, and Visual Composer, among others, all have pursued this kind of immersive content input world before and most of these include some kind of block-like system for their various content types. With these options growing in popularity, it is easy to see how the landscape has shifted towards this kind of editing experience and why WordPress would want to incorporate this kind of functionality into its core. But while this ideal of the fully customizable, WYSIWYG experience does seem to have a lot of appeal both visually and editorially, it is not without good reason that many sites have foregone these options for non-WYSIWYG editing experiences.

The Gutenberg website touts that you get to “be your own builder.” But, let’s be honest, not all of us want to spend hours after we have planned and created our content trying to sort through a myriad of possibilities of how to present that content. We want as few barriers as possible to getting our content onto a web page. Having the ability to add numerous types of content and tweak and see all your content may seem like an incredible feature but this kind of freedom can complicate the content creation process and create a cluttered message.

The freedom of Gutenberg can particularly exacerbate the situation many museums are in where there is not one individual editing the site but a team of various people adding different content types in different places. You could certainly try and create a style guide, have a few meetings to get everyone on board, and then hope that everyone sticks to the plan and pray that you do not have a rogue who wants to stretch their inner web designing muscle by creating a unique color palette for their content, implementing a boxed layout design, and adjusted all of their font sizes cause it looks cooler. I mean, it could work. But there is a better way, one that minimizes effort and keeps your website design consistent.

Part of what Cuberis provides to museums is not a giant tool-chest filled with every possible content option out there but the correct tools to achieve your goals, curated so that all of your pages stay focused on your message and styled in line with the rest of your site. We want visitors to your site to have a consistent experience across all of your pages with minimal effort from the content creators. While page-builders and visual editors provide a lot of freedom, that freedom can place a greater workload and responsibility to maintain styles on those inputting content. Instead of endless possibilities, you need the right options.

This kind of curation with Gutenberg blocks is certainly possible. In trips to recent Wordcamps here in North Carolina and keeping up with the WordPress community, our development team has learned all about how to create Gutenberg blocks from scratch, edit current ones, and dive into the inner workings of these new blocks to plan how we should best implement this into our website-building process. It is quite possible to limit Gutenberg’s functionality to meet your and your team’s needs but with the increased development time of creating or editing a Gutenberg block over some traditional content editors, you will certainly need to weigh how much a fully-polished editing interface is worth to you. Even with these obstacles, we have been pleasantly surprised with how well some of the pros of Gutenberg mesh with our current build process already and offer a glimpse of hope for the future.

The idea of blocks is a very important and forward move for WordPress. For years now, Cuberis has used a custom-build component system based on Advanced Custom Fields (ACF) to provide modularity and ease to the content input process, very similar to what Gutenberg is now implementing. One of our goals with our components, however, was not to give absolute freedom to content creation but provide an easy-to-use system for content entry that will provide a consistent front-end appearance for our client’s website with minimal adjustments. With that said, we are very excited to see that ACF has recently announced a new ACF Blocks functionality which could begin to ease the development costs of creating a Gutenberg block with the kind of curated content editing that our clients expect.

Gutenberg’s recent addition of reusable templates of blocks perhaps offers a microcosmic glimpse into where Gutenberg stands as a whole. These templates have the potential to provide entire pre-curated content layouts, offering often requested guidance in creating page content, while also potentially taking an important first step in creating full-page layouts in the future, all with the kind of WYSIWYG visuals that one expects from Gutenberg. But they also currently lack some of the functionality necessary to fully replace traditional page templates. This new layout functionality essentially provides the group of blocks for a specific page but these blocks then become unique to that page; it is impossible to change them all at once. If you wanted to change this layout sitewide, you would need to go edit every instance where you used that layout and adjust them, a tedious task that has been addressed by traditional page templates but which could rise again in Gutenberg, if not addressed. Thus, while these layouts provide an important piece in Gutenberg’s ascendency to must-have status, and certainly offer a promising glimpse of the future, it also shows how may not be the right tool quite yet.

It’s easy to see Gutenberg as the future of website editors, where the barriers of content and page layout are removed and placed at the fingertips of everyone. It is the direction that website development and slowly been shifting towards for a while and WordPress’s core implementation of such functionality offers an exciting path forward to bringing this to reality. And while the current development costs may make a curated editorial admin interface prohibitively expensive, those barriers are being removed as well as the community gathers around this new core functionality. This does not mean it is fully realized, and certainly, there are areas where traditional approaches to website development still have their place. But just as Johannes had to start making his first moveable type molds, this is a good place to begin seeing the future of WordPress website development.