Design and Development

Rethinking WordPress as a CMS


Filed under: Design Inspiration, Web Development, Wordpress.

According to Forbes, WordPress powers one of every 6 websites on the Internet, nearly 60 million in all, with 100,000 more popping up each day. But have you ever taken time to think about how WordPress manages content? Not only from an editing perspective but also from a design/development perspective.

This article has come about from years of experience with WordPress, talking and working with multiple Clients, and being inspired from other innovative products – like Square. One of the things that really strikes me about Square is that they are so focused on their users. They are focused on completely rethinking how payments are done in order to make them beautiful and easy to use.

Head over to and watch this video, it will give you the background needed to understand this article.

Square - Simple and Breathtaking

Let’s think about the WordPress Admin – is it focused on its users; is it easy to use; is it breathtaking? I think we’ll all agree that it could use some work in these areas.

Some of these issues are related to the Client experience, and some are related to our design process. All these problems are related in one way or another to user experience. Before we dive into the problems of WordPress, please understand that I’m not suggesting that we need to throw WordPress away and develop a radically different CMS. Nor am I necessarily suggesting that these problems should be fixed and embedded into the next core version of WordPress.

What I am suggesting is that we as developers, designers, programmers, (really) “Solutions Managers” need to look at these problems and develop a creative solution for them. So read on, and put your creative hat on – you’ll need it!

The Good

First off, I need to give a big thank you to the WordPress team for all they’ve done over the years to improve it with each new release! You all have done some fantastic things, and we really appreciate what you’ve done with the new media editor and the “Distraction Free” writing mode – thank you!

WordPress saves businesses lots of money

Can you imagine delivering a website to a business without some sort of a CMS built-in for editing? I was just talking with a large church this week who was very frustrated with all the money they wasted because they had no CMS. Literally every time they needed to add an event to their calendar they had to pay an outside firm to update the site. WordPress saves businesses millions of dollars every year – there is simply no excuse for not including a CMS for websites you build.

WordPress helps designers focus on more important things

Imagine if every time your Clients needed to make a text change to their website, they called you up. You would literally be spending all your time working in simple HTML making little textual changes – what a waste of time! Sure, some may argue that WordPress (and especially themes) have put them out of a job, but it’s just like any other invention in our world.

Many workers complained when Combines were introduced because they wouldn’t have a job any more (i.e. sweating long hours picking grains in the field). However, those same workers today couldn’t imagine going back to their former jobs. They now have more time to focus on things they enjoy, because a machine can take over the menial task they once did.

WordPress has given us as designers/developers more time to focus on things we love to do like building new apps, designing beautiful layouts, and working on exciting projects.

WordPress saves developers lots of time

One of the things that’s so innovative about WordPress is all the time it saves us when developing a website. Before the days of plugins, everyone was creating their own version of things like forums, e-stores, galleries, contact forms etc.

People reinvented the wheel literally thousands of times simply because there was no way to easily find an existing solution for their project.

I realize that sometimes plugins are horribly abused, but for the most part, they are powerful tools that save our firm countless hours every project.

The Bad

Clients can break their new shiny website

Think about it, your Client just paid x0,000 for their shiny new website. They are super excited about posting new content and keeping everything up to date. They log in to their home page to add a new paragraph and suddenly – horror of horrors, the layout is broken.

They try to fix it by undoing changes, or looking at their auto saves, but for some reason they just can’t seem to get things back to normal. Next thing you know, you receive an urgent phone call, and you have to spend hours trying to figure out what they did.

There has to be a better solution that we as developers can give our Clients. Something that is easy for them to use, but doesn’t give them so much power that they can break the design.

For most clients it’s overwhelming

For your average business owner (i.e. non-technical Client), a “fresh” out of the box install of WordPress can be overwhelming. They are greeted with a host of options including “Appearance”, “Plugins”, “Tools”, “Permalinks”, “Widgets” and on and on. Even when they do finally figure out how to edit a page, they see symbols entitled “Remove Formatting”, “Insert Special Character”, and even “Text Colors”.

The complexity of WordPress

Thoughts running through their head include: “Wow, shouldn’t this be simpler?”, “Hmm… I wonder what “Hide Kitchen Sink” does?”, and “I came to add a few sentences, not design a new site”.

Imagine if you handed a $6000 DSLR camera with a new edition of Photoshop to a beginning photographer and asked them to take a photo shoot of your family. At first they are excited with all the buttons and gadgets, then frustrated when they can’t figure out how to resize a photo, then irritated that people couldn’t create a “better solution” for people who just want to take a few nice photos.

A beginning photographer will be much happier using something like Picasa or Instagram than Photoshop. They simply don’t need all the options and effects. Their goal is to take a nice photo, apply a few simple effects, and share it with their friends.

It’s the same with business owners – we shouldn’t expect them to edit their website in Dreamweaver or Coda right? I’m going to argue that a website with a fresh install of WordPress is almost as overwhelming for our Clients as Photoshop is to a beginning photographer.

The way our firm, and many others use WordPress is almost as a plug-and-play solution to add editing functionality for our Clients.

As a creative community, we really haven’t put much thought into designing a beautiful, simple solution that is a joy to use. Rather it’s more like “Okay, so you need to edit the site? We’ll build it on top of WordPress and charge you an extra 3-5K”.

Editing page content should be easier

From a non-developers perspective, WordPress is not very user friendly. Think about when someone new to WordPress is trying to create a simple page for their new website. They’ve added all the text, headlines, and finally figured out how to make that image stay to the left side!

But wait, they want to change that image for a different one. Here’s what they are thinking: “Okay great, I click on the image… Hmmm, I can’t find out how to change images… Ahh, ‘Advanced Settings’, gotta be in there. Man, I still can’t find it… Whatever, I’ll just delete it and add a new one.”

Actually, the correct way to change images is to click on the image, select “Add Media” and then insert the new image – not very intuitive or simple.

Also, think about how many 3 column or other advanced layouts are achieved these days. We as developers have to use a variety of custom post types, shortcodes, additional edit boxes and widgets. But how is our Client supposed to remember when they need to edit a widget, and when they should just edit a post?

It’s fine to use all these features on the back end, but when it comes to editing there has to be a better, simpler way.

From a Designers Prospective

WordPress doesn’t allow enough control for creative page layouts

One thing we’ve really struggled with over the last several years of using WordPress is how to create creative layouts. It’s relatively straightforward to create a mostly text website like Jonathan Snook’s:

Typographic Website: Jonathan Snook

But how about creating an advanced 2-column layout like Dropmark’s site?

Advanced 2-Column layout: Dropmark

Or maybe a beautiful one-pager like Circles Conference :

One Page Website: Circles - A Creative Conference

In a traditional custom WordPress website there is no easy, effective way to implement creative layouts like these.

Sure, you can accomplish it by creating a variety of Post Loops, Widgets, Custom Posts, and CSS classes; but there’s a problem. What happens when a Client goes to make a change and accidentally deletes your h1 element with its custom class? The class disappears, and your layout breaks.

In one sense WordPress helps developers, but in another sense it limits the creativity and usability of the sites we build. It’s very difficult to build advanced responsive layouts with WordPress. While there are workarounds to this problem, none of them are very good solutions.

There has to be a better way to manage content. That’s what WordPress is supposed to do manage content – right?


WordPress is an amazing tool for developers to create websites that are maintainable by Clients. There is no argument that it saves time through themes, plugins and different functions. However, there are several major problems with it that need to be addressed by the creative community. In summary, here are a few of the main problems with WordPress:

  • Most of its “power” is overwhelming to a business owner
  • It’s far too easy for Clients to break their new website
  • It’s difficult for developers to create advanced layouts

Next time we will look at different solutions and workarounds for these problems we’ve discussed. This series is a work in progress, so please post any ideas or solutions you’ve discovered.

So what do you think? Is WordPress broken or fine just the way it is? I’d love to hear one thing you love or hate about it.

Be sure to read the next article in this series entitled “What does an optimal CMS user-experience look like?“.

Join the discussion below, we'd love to hear from you!


    WordPress is one of the most popular CMS available. Reading this entire article gives some very useful tips on CMS development.


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