Gutenberg: The new WordPress editing experience

What is Gutenberg?

Since the introduction of WordPress back in 2003, the editing experience of content has primarily been a single editable region. This editor allows you to add and edit content using an interface similar to Microsoft Word. This is set to change in WordPress 5.0, with the introduction of Gutenberg, the new editing experience for WordPress, named after Johannes Gutenberg (not Steve Guttenberg), who invented the printing press. Rather than having a single content area, content will now be built using different elements of content, called blocks.

Gutenberg: The new WordPress editing experience

The current WordPress editor

Gutenberg: The new WordPress editing experience

The new Gutenberg editor

Installing Gutenberg

The new Gutenberg editor will be rolled out in WordPress 5.0, however, you are able to test the new editor from WordPress 4.9.8 or higher by installing the Gutenberg plugin, available on the official WordPress plugin library. Before doing this, please see the section below titled ‘WordPress theme compatibility’.

Building a page with blocks

WordPress will come pre-populated with a library of blocks out of the box. Instead of typing your content into the editor, a block will now be inserted and dragged into position. These blocks will include the standard page elements such as paragraphs, images, tables and lists, but also advanced blocks such as buttons, embeds, video and audio. Each block will have its own options panel, allowing the content to easily be edited. The beauty of splitting a page content into blocks is that you will no longer find yourself having to switch to the HTML editor to make an advanced change; each block will have all the options you need in order to style your content. Certain blocks will also allow you to easily set a CSS class, rather than having to enter the class name manually within the HTML editor, which will make it easier to quickly change the look of each block.

Developing custom blocks

New versions of WordPress will see new blocks added and additional options available for existing blocks, such as new services for embed codes, or different layout options.

Web Developers creating bespoke WordPress themes will also be able to add custom blocks to serve a specific purpose of a theme, and also lock down the available blocks, so that users only have access to relevant elements.

A common way of enhancing the default functionally of WordPress is by utilising Custom Post Types. These are still available in WordPress 5.0, however, will now include new options allowing you to set default blocks for new posts. This could be useful if building a staff directory for example, where you can configure the post to use a set of bocks as default; such as name, job title and photo. All the user would have to do then is set the options within the block, and publish, rather than fiddle with individual styles and spacing.

Why the big change? If it’s not broke, don’t fix it

WordPress is always looking at ways to modernise their product, to make it faster, responsive and intuitive for users. There has been talk for a long time that they would like to take steps towards a more fluid JavaScript-powered editor, which utilises the WordPress REST API for data storage. This approach in theory will make the product slicker and operate like an app.

On first use, it seemed strange that the blocks still only allowed you to edit the main content area. Making changes outside of this area meant you still had to go to other places, such as Widgets. In the future I can see the ‘Page Templates’ facility being removed. You would then choose which layout you want to use from within Gutenberg, which would then allow you to edit the content in the main area, as well as any other columns specified in the template.

WordPress theme compatibility

The great thing about WordPress is that they always have compatibility at the top of their agenda, and would not risk millions of WordPress websites around the world breaking overnight. This update however, is a big change for the WordPress community, and going forward, will require changes to how theme and plugin developers code their solutions.

In terms of the standard WordPress blog configuration, you can be guaranteed that you can install the new Gutenberg editor, and everything will work as normal. The core software however, is not the only part of a typical large WordPress website. Website solutions are built using a selection of Plugins, and depending on the scope of the website, some will be built by WordPress themselves and some by third parties. It is with these third party plugins that you need to make sure Gutenberg is compatible, so it is advisable to install it before WordPress 5.0 is released to make sure everything operates as normal.

If there is a problem, don’t panic, you have two options.

  1. Update your plugins and modify your theme to make it compatible with the update.
  2. Install the Classic Editor plugin. This will revert WordPress back to the classic editor view that you are used to. This should give you enough time to fix any large issues.

I would not rely on the Classic Editor plugin being around forever however, as it will almost certainly stop working at some point in the future, so it is best to get your WordPress theme compatible sooner rather than later.

James PattenTechnical Director

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