WordPress made a big leap into the world of modern web development with its announcement of Gutenberg last year—reimagining what WordPress is and can be by providing a new interface for creating content built partially on the React.js platform. Since it will most likely be rolled into Core sometime mid to late 2018, WebDevStudios (WDS) is looking toward the future. Enter WDS Blocks.
As of May 2018, WordPress runs ~30.7% of the internet. For better or worse, it’s going to be hard to ignore the impact Gutenberg will have on the web when it officially launches. The new feature is being teased to the public now, and though it’s nowhere near a stable final release, its adoption rate is growing exponentially and WDS needed a game plan to ensure we’re not behind the curve.
In August 2017, during one of our weekly leadership calls, the topic of Gutenberg was brought up. Everyone thought the project was a bit premature to start building on top of. We discussed the possible future implications but weren’t ready to give the idea of building our own custom Gutenberg blocks any serious attention. Gutenberg had just barely been announced, and like many suggested features, its future was uncertain. So it was tabled for several months.
Four months later, WDS named Greg Rickaby to the position of Director of Engineering, and by this time, Gutenberg had become the biggest topic in the WordPress space—there was no ignoring it.
Greg spoke with Cristina Holt, our Director of Project Management, and the initial thoughts were to approach Gutenberg just like a client project and pitch it to our CEO, Brad Williams, and put the full weight of our talented developers behind the project.
“First we needed to train our engineers and project managers,” explains Greg. “Second, we had to come up with a development plan and schedule, then finally put together a project team. It took a few conversations with leadership, but Brad and Lisa eventually agreed to let us move forward with the ‘WDS Gutenberg Project.’”
Once the project was approved, Cristina and Greg assembled a team which would be led by Lead Frontend Engineer, Corey Collins, and Lead Backend Engineer, Kellen Mace. The engineering team was rounded out by Jo Murgel, Eric Fuller, and Will Schmierer.
Our first release was to replicate or replace components such as Heroes, Cards, and Calls-To-Action. These are components that are commonly used by our clients on typical website projects and are already included in our starter theme, wd_s. We call these “Global Content Blocks” and they’re powered by Advanced Custom Fields’ “Flexible Content” feature.
The Training Plan
Each of our engineers was scheduled some time to take the course. Once they completed their training, they could get spun up on WDS Blocks.
The Development Plan
While training, Kellen Mace had read about Ahmad Awais’s Create Guten Block on Github, which bills itself as a zero-configuration toolkit for spinning up Gutenberg blocks. He proposed using it to provide the foundation for our WDS Blocks project. Finding this toolkit was honestly a relief, as the thought of scaffolding the project and configuring Webpack from scratch wasn’t something any of us really wanted to do.
We also needed to provide greater advanced settings for each block including the ability to change the background decoration (image, color, video), add some visual flair (animate.css classNames), and a few other options to provide greater control to users beyond what is inherently available from WordPress out of the box.
Our blocks needed to provide a simple and clean backend experience with a fairly generic theme-friendly frontend render. For release 1.0 we ended up working toward a hero, call to action area, recent posts grid, manual-select related posts grid, a dual-column layout, and a gist embed. Since then we’d added several updates to these blocks and a users grid block with room to grow going forward.
Like most stories, the journey is far more interesting than the end result. We learned a lot about what Gutenberg can and can’t do, why they chose React.js, and why they added an abstraction layer.
Utilizing Gutenberg’s Inspector Control tools, we were able to create a set of Background, Text, and Other Options that we could easily replicate across all of our blocks. We even wrote about it so we could share what we learned and how we were able to keep our code DRY in order for our options to be as easy as possible to implement in new blocks.
Despite the insistence from WordPress themselves that aMultiSelect component wasn’t necessary, Issue #1044, we found the use case for such a component important. So we built one as a part of our recent posts and users grid blocks.
During the rest of our development, we found ourselves needing to reuse bits and pieces throughout our blocks. In addition to creating seven new blocks (plus a default block to copy from), we also created 10 new reusable components! These cover Options noted above, post search, and MultiSelect amongst others. Being able to create standalone components, and control their output at the component level, helps us keep a clean and consistent codebase across all of our blocks.
Based on the way Gutenberg is built and how it renders markup to
post_content there was a problem with creating dynamic or non-static blocks that needed to be worked out. More on that at the WDS Blog: WordPress Gutenberg — Arrays, Attributes, and the Fundamental Flaw – WebDevStudios.
Initially, our plan was to render all of our blocks via PHP because we ran into issues when updating the markup for blocks. For instance, when rendering in JSX, if you were to add a
className to your block container, you would receive a popup in the post editor informing you that your block was no longer valid, and the new
className would not be present on the front-end. After some digging, we were able to realize that Gutenberg’s deprecated function was exactly what we needed. This allows for you to make changes to your block, to have those updates visible on both the backend and frontend of your site and to avoid the “invalid markup” popup after changing your block’s markup. You can read more about Deprecated Blocks in the Gutenberg Handbook.
Finally, WordPress provides a feature for styling both the front and backend render. Before Gutenberg existed, you’d have a simple text-based WYSIWYG editor with no real indication of how the content might look on the front end. Appending theme styles to a WordPress Gutenberg Block has never been easier, with its shared styles allowing for a user experience which more closely resembles that of the frontend.
This is just the beginning. Every release of Gutenberg unveils changes in functionality, bug fixes and deprecated features forcing us to keep up with testing and look for additional functionality that can improve the user experience.
We plan to use WDS Blocks as a starting point for new website projects, providing many of the common blocks that our clients will likely need, then add to those any project-specific blocks.
We’ve opened the repo to the public and encourage everyone to get involved with the project. We welcome your help as we work to build out a library of powerful and useful blocks that take full advantage of WordPress’ new editing experience.