The WordPress Philosophy: What Is It and Why Should You Care?
Have you ever installed a plugin into your WordPress website and thought, “Ummm… that’s different”? Something about it just stood out as not quite right. The settings felt strange, or there were way too many settings, or maybe it changed parts of your site in ways you didn’t expect.
Most often this experience involves a plugin or a theme that doesn’t do things “The WordPress Way.” If you’ve ever heard that phrase, it probably sounded a bit mysterious. That’s because while “The WordPress Way” does have a definition, it’s still a bit fuzzy; it’s not so simple to boil it down to a sentence or two. It’s not merely about the settings interface, or where to put the menus — it’s a whole philosophy of understanding user experience, development, and even freedom itself.
This series is about the WordPress Philosophy. Yes, WordPress has an actual philosophy! This simple document will hold a lot of sway over everything that you interact with in your WordPress admin.
By the end of this series, you’ll have a stronger grasp of the WordPress Philosophy. You’ll be empowered to make more informed and discerning choices with your plugins and themes for your website. For you developers reading along, you’ll be informed how you build out your next feature set, plugin, or theme.
Why Does Software Have a Philosophy at All?
Before we jump into the first item of the philosophy, let’s ask, “Why?” Why does the WordPress Philosophy exist, and why does it matter at all?
Philosophy simply means “the love of knowledge.” In this case, the WordPress Philosophy is technically not a philosophy at all, but a set of guidelines and principles. The philosophy is a list of ideals and beliefs that instruct and inform developers and designers in how they approach implementing new features of WordPress.
Virtually every major software developer has a set of guiding principles. While Microsoft’s is focused on structure or “architecture,” Apple’s is driven by design, and Google’s is driven by user experience. If you’re familiar with the products of these companies (and who isn’t!?), then this sounds obvious to you, whereas Microsoft excels with data structures, Apple entices you with beauty, and Google wants you to search with one click. Their principles inform the products that we all use, and WordPress is no different.
How Does WordPress Benefit from Having a Philosophy?
WordPress is designed with its philosophy front and center.
Did you know that when WordPress launched, it did not have the ability to install plugins? Instead it had “hacks” — literally a file where code was pasted in order to extend WordPress. According to Ryan Boren in the open source WordPress History Book:
…the plugin system enabled core developers to implement the 80/20 [philosophy]: ‘Is this useful to 80% of our users? If not, try it in a plugin.’
For a year after launch, WordPress had no plugins at all. The need arose from the guiding principle that not every feature belonged in the core product. This is the “Clean, Lean, and Mean” principle. It’s fair to say that WordPress has its 29% market share of the internet in large part due to its plugin system, which was born out of the WordPress Philosophy.
Why Does This Matter for Me As a WordPress User?
I’m the kind of person who thinks that history and philosophy always matter, so this should just simply be interesting as is. But in this case, I believe there are very practical reasons you as a business owner, website admin, blogger, or agency owner should be interested in the WordPress Philosophy. Here are three:
- It helps you better understand your website.
The WordPress Philosophy is embedded into the layout, design, and general usability of your WordPress admin area. It’s why you no longer have a “links” menu, but you do have a “Custom CSS” setting now. It’s the force behind everything about Gutenberg. It’s the reason why you don’t want your theme to also be a page builder, and why your admin can be swapped with a click into dozens of different languages.
Understanding the WordPress Philosophy helps you understand your website.
- It informs how you build your website for your visitors.
Outside of the admin screens, the WordPress Philosophy offers valuable guidance for the rest of your website. Will 80% of your visitors use that Google Map you embed on your contact page? When you build out your content calendar, do you just create dates for you personally, or make sure your “deadlines aren’t arbitrary”?
The WordPress Philosophy will help you be a better website builder.
- It guides your selection of themes and plugins.
Of all the ways in which the WordPress Philosophy affects your website, this is the main reason I am writing this series. As a plugin author and theme creator, I see far too many WordPress users loading up their site with plugins that destroy their admin and bloat their system. Choosing plugins is difficult, and problematic plugins are often hard to detect. Still, understanding “The WordPress Way” will help you become a more informed theme and plugin user, which in turn will benefit your entire site.
Starting next month, you’ll see a new article from me once a month on this subject. We’ll go item by item through the WordPress Philosophy in terms of what it says, what it means, explore great and horrible examples of it in plugins and themes, and ultimately identify why you should care and what you should do about it.
Next month we’ll start with the last item in the philosophy: Our Bill of Rights. This section is foundational because it is embedded in every single WordPress site, plugin, and theme in the world.
So read ahead and if you already have questions, I’ll be monitoring the comments below.