Tag: development

I completely ignored the front-end development scene for 6 months. It was fine.

Have you ever fretted that front-end web development moves so fast that if you stepped away for a while, you’d be lost coming back? Rachel Smith has:

The hectic pace of needing to learn one thing after the next didn’t bother me so much because when I was 26 because I was quite happy to spend much of my free time outside of my day job coding. I was really enjoying myself, so the impression that I had to constantly up-skill to maintain my career wasn’t a concern. I did wonder, though, how I would ever take enough time off to have a baby, or have other responsibilities that would prevent me from being able to spend so much of my time mastering languages and learning new libraries and frameworks.

And then, as is inevitable for most of us, she did take a break. And as you read in the title, it was fine:

What I’ve learnt through experience is that the number of languages I’ve learned or the specific frameworks I’ve gained experience with matters very little. What actually matters is my ability to up-skill quickly and effectively. My success so far has nothing to do with the fact I know React instead of Vue, or have experience with AWS and not Azure. What has contributed to my success is the willingness to learn new tools as the need arises.

I might be extra qualified to verify this claim, as I work directly with Rachel. She’s better than “fine” as a team member and technological contributor, both on the front-end and back. She’s extremely good. And you will be too if you heed Rachel’s advice: be a lifelong learner and be willing to learn new tools as the needs arise.

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Principles for user-centered front-end development

Colin Oakley:

Accessible — Use semantic HTML, and make sure we meet the WCAG 2.1 AA standard as a minimum and it works with assisted technologies (this sits alongside the DWP Accessibility Manual)

• Agnostic — Build mobile-first and make it work across a range of devices, and user contexts

• Robust — Use progressive enhancement, make sure what we build fails gracefully

• Performant — Optimise our code/assets for the best possible performance across a range of networks and devices

• Secure — Create a secure service which protects users’ privacy. Use strict content security policies and guard against common OWASP attacks.

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Creating Powerful Websites with Serverless-Driven CMS Development

Choosing the right tools to build a website for your organization is essential, but it can be tough to find the right fit. Simple site builders like Wix and Squarespace are easy for marketers to use, but severely limit developers when it comes to customizing site functionality. WordPress is a more robust content management system (CMS), but it requires clunky plugins with infrequent updates and potential security issues

Other site-building tools, such as Gatsby or Hexo, are developer-friendly, but make it very challenging for content creators without technical backgrounds to make even simple updates on their own. These tools often don’t meet the needs of large creative teams running corporate websites.

But there is an option that solves for both audiences. HubSpot’s CMS Hub is a content management system powered by a full CRM Platform that empowers developers to build advanced functionality and marketers to make updates and publish content on their own.

One of the features CMS Hub offers developers is the ability to create serverless functions. These functions make it possible to enhance a website’s backend functionality with integrated plugins that are much easier to develop, deploy, and maintain than third-party WordPress plugins. 

Throughout this article, you’ll get a hands-on look at how HubSpot serverless functions help you build custom websites that clients love. To provide a super-quick preview of what is possible, we’ll fetch news data using GET functions that could be used to populate a dynamic webpage. You’ll need to know some JavaScript to follow along. 

HubSpot Serverless Functions

Serverless architecture enables developers to build and run applications and services without managing the server’s infrastructure. You don’t need to provision, scale, and maintain servers or install and manage databases to host and serve your web applications. When your business grows, it is much easier to scale.

HubSpot’s serverless functions are as powerful as WordPress plugins. They are capable of interacting with HubSpot’s CRM platform as well as integrating with third-party services through APIs. You can use serverless functions to enhance your site, for example:

  • Getting data and storing it in HubDB or the HubSpot CRM
  • Integrating your website with third-party services like Google Forms
  • Creating event registration systems
  • Submitting forms that send data to other services

The functions’ code is stored in the developer file system and is accessed from the Design Manager user interface (UI) or the command-line interface (CLI). You can use the CLI to generate and edit the code locally using your preferred local development tools then upload these changes to HubSpot.

To try the example serverless function in the next section, you need to have access to a CMS Hub Enterprise account or sign up for a free developer testing account. We’ll deploy serverless functions into a site created based on the CMS Boilerplate.

(If you are not familiar with HubSpot development, you may want to check out the quick start guide before following along with the examples below.)

Fetching News Data Using GET Requests

Let’s start by implementing a serverless function that sends a GET request to a third-party REST API to fetch the latest news data using the Axios client. This API searches for online news articles that mention the keyword “HubSpot.”

Note: We’ll be using a third-party API available from NewsAPI.org to retrieve news data, so you first need to register for their API key.

APIs that require authentication or use API keys are not safe for a website’s frontend as they expose your credentials. Serverless functions are a good solution as an intermediary, keeping your credentials secret.

Head over to a CLI and run the following commands:

cd local-cms-dev mkdir myfunctions hs create function 

First, we navigate to our local CMS project, and we call the hs create function command to generate a simple boilerplate function.

You’ll be prompted for some information about your functions, such as:

  • Name of the folder where your function will be created. Enter myfunctions/getnews.
  • Name of the JavaScript file for your function. Enter getnews.
  • Select the HTTP method for the endpoint. Select GET.
  • Path portion of the URL created for the function. Enter getnews.

You should get a message saying that a function for the endpoint “/_hcms/API/getnews” has been created. This means, once uploaded, our function will be available from the /_hcms/API/getnews endpoint. 

Before uploading the function, let’s first implement our desired functionality.

Open the myfunctions\getnews.function\getnews.js file. You’ll find some boilerplate code for a serverless function that sends a GET request to the HubSpot search API. Remove the boilerplate code and leave only the following updated code:

const axios = require('axios'); const API_KEY = '<YOUR_API_KEY_HERE>';  exports.main = async (_, sendResponse) => {     };

Note that you should normally add your API key via the command-line interface hs secrets command, but adding it here is sufficient for the purpose of demonstrating the function.

We require the Axios library to send HTTP requests, and we export a main function that HubSpot executes when a request is made to the associated endpoint. We also define an API_KEY variable that holds the API key from the news API.

Next, inside the body of the main function, add the following code:

const response = await axios.get(`https://newsapi.org/v2/everything?q=HubSpot&sortBy=popularity&apiKey=$  {API_KEY}`); sendResponse({ body: { response: response.data }, statusCode: 200 });

We call Axios to send a GET request to the API endpoint, then we call the sendResponse method to send the fetched data back to the client. We could call this API directly from the frontend code, but we would need to expose our API key, which should be secret. Thanks to the serverless function, fetching data happens on the server side, so we don’t have to expose the secret.

Finally, run the following command to upload your function:

hs upload myfunctions myfunctions

This command uploads files from the myfunctions local folder to a myfunctions folder (that will be created) in your account’s Design Manager.

Finally, run the method by visiting the /_hcms/API/getnews endpoint with your web browser. In our case, we need to visit this link. Here, you should see a list of news articles about HubSpot – albeit without any front-end design. 

While it is beyond the scope of this article, our next step would be to take the data from the NewsAPI and create a template that would allow us to output the news results onto a dynamic webpage. And with this, we’ll have a place where anyone can quickly catch up on all the latest news mentioning HubSpot or any other keyword you decide to include.  

Next Steps

When you need a small brochure-based website and won’t be making many updates, any CMS will do. However, when you are looking to create advanced digital experiences to grow your organization, HubSpot’s CMS Hub offers the functionality and flexibility you need. Plus, you can work with your preferred tools and modern workflows such as CLIs, integrated development environments (IDEs), and GitHub. 

Hopefully, this article has provided an initial glimpse of what is possible with HubSpot’s serverless functions. But don’t stop here, dive in and experiment with adding custom functionality to your own HubSpot-powered website. Your imagination is the limit. Sign up for a free developer test account to get started.

Further reading:


Ahmed Bouchefra is a developer and technical author with a BAC + 5 diploma in software development. Ahmed builds apps and authors technical content about JavaScript, Angular, Ionic, and more.


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The Power of Web Development Outside Tech

In 2020, I learned about the power of web development for organizations and nonprofits outside of tech. I learned that you can leverage your skills to affect change and build long-lasting partnerships.

This year, I joined the Board of Directors of the League of Women Voters San Francisco (LWVSF), which, despite its name, welcomes people of all genders. This century-old organization has over 800 branches that span cities and states across the United States and the world.

Before joining the Board, I helped lead the LWVSF Observer Corps (and still do), whose focus is increasing government transparency and protecting the public’s participation in government with an emphasis on policing practices. Eventually, my volunteer efforts hit a point where I needed to start editing our website myself.

The first thing I noticed was that every individual League has its own website, user interface, and content. Some use MyLo (a platform developed for Leagues by LWV California), some use SquareSpace, and we at LWVSF use GoDaddy’s “Website Builder”. I quickly learned that base-level HTML, CSS, and inline JavaScript skills with a sprinkling of PHP (for WordPress-based sites) will take one quite far in this realm.

In some ways, the bar outside of the tech industry is lower — for these blogs, and what are otherwise static websites, one doesn’t need much to get started. Coming in as a seasoned software developer, I often found myself frustrated by small things: a limit on the number of displayed events in the editor, the inability to customize PayPal integrations, and unpreserved tabbing and syntax highlighting. Big things too, like unintuitive user interface and information architecture. Imagine attempting to make sense of a website builder without a foundation built on years of tech literacy.

The risks are also super high. If we introduce a website bug, it could mean the loss of essential donations and grants, the failure to recruit potential key members, or the inability to share last-minute information about a government meeting where legislative changes affect marginalized populations.

For me, this points to the importance of partnership between those in tech and those outside of it. Our skills are valuable to the essential work of political organizing. Tools for those working for social good and the betterment of society should be the best. We can help!

Take Rideshare Drivers United (RDU). In 2017, a software developer, Ivan Pardo, and a driver who was also a former union organizer put their heads together and created an app to recruit drivers to RDU. Pardo and I met through the Tech Workers Coalition and RDU’s text banking drive, and we discussed the amazing work he put into the app.

This year, Pardo updated the app with phone and text banking capabilities to help spread the “No on Prop 22” message. This led to the texting of over one million voters, with some individual drivers texting over 50,000 people! The platform is simple, straightforward, and impactful, but most importantly, the platform fits the needs of RDU and supports their activism rather than overshadowing it.

What makes Pardo’s app so good, so effective? He says:

I’m there to serve the group in any capacity necessary. But I’m not a driver. Just because you know software doesn’t mean you understand organizing. I spent just as many hours learning about the industry and that allows me to build software [for RDU] more effectively.

And his advice for getting involved?

Attach yourself to an organization that is pro-people and pro-democracy. Then build software to serve that organization.

As demonstrated by Pardo and RDU, there are clear benefits and a massive impact that stems from the cooperation between tech workers and non-tech organizations. Using our technical know-how to amplify the work of others has stood out to me as a light in the dark, especially in a year like 2020.

Even simple websites and apps go on to make a huge difference politically and socially. We, as website builders, have the benefit that even in a global pandemic, we’re able to organize and operate online.

In the last year, as friends, acquaintances, and myself were laid off in the middle of a global pandemic, I learned about and was inspired by the initiative of so many. Despite being unable to organize in person, I saw my friend Amy working on VoteAmerica, Chris churning out Election Map SF, countless individuals promoting the team behind Native Land, and The Algorithmic Justice League cobbling together AI advocacy resources, just to name a few.


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Cloudinary Fetch with Eleventy (Respecting Local Development)

This is about a wildly specific combination of technologies — Eleventy, the static site generator, with pages with images on them that you ultimately want hosted by Cloudinary — but I just wanna document it as it sounds like a decent amount of people run into this situation.

The deal:

  • Cloudinary has a fetch URL feature, meaning you don’t actually have to learn anything (nice!) to use their service. You have to have an account, but after that you just prefix your images with a Cloudinary URL and then it is Cloudinary that optimizes, resizes, formats, and CDN serves your image. Sweet. It’s not the only service that does this, but it’s a good one.
  • But… the image needs to be on the live public internet. In development, your image URLs probably are not. They’re likely stored locally. So ideally we could keep using local URLs for images in development, and do the Cloudinary fetching on production.

Multiple people have solved this in different ways. I’m going to document how I did it (because I understand it best), but also link up how several other people have done it (which might be smarter, you be the judge).

The goal:

  • In development, images be like /images/image.png
  • In production, images be like https://res.cloudinary.com/css-tricks/image/fetch/w_1200,q_auto,f_auto/https://production-website.com/images/image.png

So if we were to template that (let’s assume Nunjucks here as it’s a nice templating language that Eleventy supports), we get something like this psuedo-code:

<img src="   {{CLOUDINARY_PREFIX}}{{FULLY_QUALIFIED_PRODUCTION_URL}}{{RELATIVE_IMAGE_URL}}   "   alt="Don't screw this up, fam." />
Development Production
{{CLOUDINARY_PREFIX}} “” “https://res.cloudinary.com/css-tricks/image/fetch/w_1200,q_auto,f_auto/”
{{FULLY_QUALIFIED_PRODUCTION_URL}} “” “https://production-website.com”
{{RELATIVE_IMAGE_URL}} “/images/image.jpg” “/images/image.jpg”

The trick then is getting those… I guess we’ll call them global variables?… set up. It’s probably just those first two. The relative image path you’d likely just write by hand as needed.

Eleventy has some magic available for this. Any *.js file we put in a _data folder will turn into variables we can use in templates. So if we made like /src/_data/sandwiches.js and it was:

module.exports = {   ham: true }

In our template, we could use {{sandwiches.ham}} and that would be defined {{true}}.

Because this is JavaScript (Node), that means we have the ability to do some logic based on other variables. In our case, some other global variables will be useful, particularly the process.env variables that Node makes available. A lot of hosts (Netlify, Vercel, etc.) make “environment variables” a thing you can set up in their system, so that process.env has them available when build processes run on their system. We could do that, but that’s rather specific and tied to those hosts. Another way to set a Node global variable is to literally set it on the command line before you run a command, so if you were to do:

SANDWICH="ham" eleventy

Then process.env.SANDWICH would be ham anywhere in your Node JavaScript. Combining all that… let’s say that our production build process sets a variable indicating production, like:

PROD="true" eleventy

But on local development, we’ll run without that global variable. So let’s make use of that information while setting up some global variables to use to construct our image sources. In /src/_data/images.js (full real-world example) we’ll do:

module.exports = {    imageLocation:     process.env.PROD === 'true'        ? 'https://coding-fonts.css-tricks.com'        : '',    urlPrefix:     process.env.PROD === 'true'       ? 'https://res.cloudinary.com/css-tricks/image/fetch/w_1600,q_auto,f_auto/'       : ''  };

You could also check process.env.CONTEXT === 'deploy-preview' to test for Netlify deploy preview URLs, in case you want to change the logic there one way or the other.

Now in any of our templates, we can use {{images.imageLocation}} and {{images.urlPrefix}} to build out the sources.

<img    src="     {{images.urlPrefixLarge}}{{images.imageLocation}}/image.png   "   alt="Useful alternative text." />

And there we go. That will be a local/relative source on development, and then on production, it becomes this prefixed and full qualified URL from which Cloudinary’s fetch will work.

Now that it’s on Cloudinary, we can take it a step further. The prefix URL can be adjusted to resize images, meaning that even with just one source image, we can pull off a rather appropriate setup for responsive images. Here’s that setup, which makes multiple prefixes available, so they can be used for the full syntax.

The end result means locally relative image in development:

The multiple versions are a lie in development, but oh well, srcset is kind of a production concern.

…and Cloudinary fetch URLs in production:

Other People’s Ideas

Phil was showing off using Netlify redirects to do this the other day:

Then the trick to local development is catching the 404’s and redirecting them locally with more redirects.

If hand-crafting your own responsive images syntax is too big of a pain (it is), I highly recommend abstracting it. In Eleventy-land, Nicolas Hoizey has a project: eleventy-plugin-images-responsiver. Eric Portis has one as well, eleventy-respimg, which specifically uses Cloudinary as I have here.

Proving this stuff has really been on people’s minds, Tim Kadlec just blogged “Proxying Cloudinary Requests with Netlify.” He expands on Phil’s tweet, adding some extra performance context and gotchas.


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In Defense of Tables and Floats in Modern Day Development

Twenty-plus years ago, tables were the main way web pages were created in HTML. It gave web builders consistent control of constructing pages with some “design.” No longer did sites only have to be top-to-bottom in a linear manner — they could be set up with columns that align left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Back then, it was seen as a huge breakthrough.

Tables, however, were never designed to lay out pages and, in fact, have all sorts of problems when used that way today. It was a convenient hack, but at the time, a very welcome one, particularly for those trying to achieve a super-specific layout that previous ways couldn’t handle.

Fast-forward to modern days and it’s now obvious that were tons of issues with the table layout approach. Accessibility is a big one.<table>, <th>, <tr> and <td> elements aren’t exactly accessible, especially when they’re nested several levels deep. Screen readers — the devices that read web content and serve as a measure of accessibility compliance — struggle to parse them into cohesive blocks of content. That’s not to say tables are bad; they simply were never intended as a layout mechanism.

Check out this table layout. Feel free to run it through VoiceOver or whatever screen reading software you have access to.

Yes, that example looks very much like a typical website layout, but it’s crafted solely with a table. You can see how quickly it becomes bloated and inaccessible the very moment we start using it for anything other than tabular data.

So after more than 20 years of being put through the ringer, you might think we should avoid tables altogether. If you’ve never shipped a table-based layout, you’ve undoubtedly heard war stories from those of us who have, and those stories are never kind. It’s like we’ve sort of made tables the “Internet Explorer of HTML elements.”

But that’s not totally fair because tables do indeed fill a purpose on the web and they are indeed accessible when they are used correctly.

Tables are designed to handle data that is semantically related and is best presented in a linear-like format. So, yes, we can use tables today in the year 2020, and that will likely continue to be true many years from now.

Here’s a table being used to display exactly what it’s intended to: tabular data!

With the push toward web standards in the early 2000s, tables were pushed aside as a layout solution in favor of other approaches, most notably the CSS float property. Designers and developers alike rejoiced because, for the first time, we had a true separation of concerns that let markup do the markup-y things it needs to do, and CSS to do the visual stuff it needs to do. That made code both cleaner and way easier to maintain and, as a result, we could actually focus on true standards, like accessibility, and even other practices, like SEO.

See (or rather hear) the difference in this example?

Many of us have worked with floats in the past. They were originally designed to allow content to flow around images that are floated either to the left or right, and still be in the document flow. Now that we’ve gotten newer layout features — again, like grid and flexbox — floats, too, have sort of fallen by the wayside, perhaps either because there are better ways to accomplish what they do, or because they also got the same bad rap as tables after being (ab)used for a long time.

But floats are still useful and relevant! In fact, we have to use them for the shape-outside property to work.

A legitimate float use case could be for wrapping content around a styled <blockquote>.

CSS features like grid, flexbox, and multicolumn layouts are among the wonderful tools we have to work with these days. With even more layout possibilities, cleaner and more accessible code, they will remain our go-to layout approaches for many years to come.

No hacks or extra code in this flexbox example of the same layout we’ve looked at throughout this article:


So, next time you find yourself considering tables or floats, reach for them with confidence! Well, when you know the situation aligns with their intended use. It’s not like I’m expecting you to walk away from this with a reinvigorated enthusiasm for tables and floats; only that, when used correctly, they are perfectly valid techniques, and even continue to be indispensable parts of our overall toolset.


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An Annotated Docker Config for Front-End Web Development

Andrew Welch sings the praises of using Docker containers for local dev environments:

Here are the advan­tages of Dock­er for me:

• Each appli­ca­tion has exact­ly the envi­ron­ment it needs to run, includ­ing spe­cif­ic ver­sions of any of the plumb­ing need­ed to get it to work (PHP, MySQL, Post­gres, whatever)
• Onboard­ing oth­ers becomes triv­ial, all they need to do is install Dock­er and type docker-compose up and away they go
• Your devel­op­ment envi­ron­ment is entire­ly dis­pos­able; if some­thing goes wrong, you just delete it and fire up a new one
• Your local com­put­er is sep­a­rate from your devel­op­ment envi­ron­ment, so switch­ing com­put­ers is triv­ial, and you won’t run into issues where you hose your com­put­er or are stuck with con­flict­ing ver­sions of DevOps services
• The cost of try­ing dif­fer­ent ver­sions of var­i­ous ser­vices is low; just change a num­ber in a .yaml file, docker-compose up, and away you go

Here’s an, uhm, very different perspective I’m anonymously posting that I snagged from a group Slack:

I have spent basically the whole day fucking around with Docker bullshit.

This has now cost the client literally thousands of dollars in me not getting any actual work done. The setup was created by the dev team, who are great, but the brittle, unstable nature of this is, well, bullshit.

I get the motivation but everyone knows that Docker is horribly slow on the Mac. It has for several years and yet it’s still in use. I just don’t get it.

Is there any way that developing with Docker on a Mac can not suck? Asking for a friend. Who is me.

Diff’rent Strokes.

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Different Favicon for Development

I bet a lot of us tend to have the production website and the development website up simultaneously a lot. It’s almost a developer cliché at this point to make some local change, refresh, refresh, refresh, refresh, and just not see the change, only to discover you were looking at the production website, not your local development website.

It’s just funny at first, but it’s frustrating if it happens a lot. It’s also totally avoidable by having an obvious visual¹ difference between the two sites. An easy way to do that? Different favicons.

There is no real trick to this. I literally just have a different favicon.ico file in development than I do in production. On this (WordPress) site, I only version control and deploy the wp-content folder, which is not the root of the site where the favicon lives. Any files at the root I have to manually SFTP in to change. I simply changed my local version, and there it sits, being all different.

Other trickery

Speaking of favicons…

This has me wondering what best practices for favicons are in 2020, at least for garden variety content websites like this.

I hate to say it, but I don’t really care about what the icon is when someone adds this site to the home screen on an iPad, ya know? Aside from one fellow who wanted a copy of the whole database to use the site offline to teach prisoners, nobody has ever asked me about “installing” CSS-Tricks.

Nor do I care about the tile color on a Windows 8 tablet or to customize the color of the browser chrome on Android. That kinda stuff tends to be part of the process when “generating” favicons.

I do care that the favicon looks good on high-resolution displays (a 32×32 graphic isn’t much of a splurge). I like the idea of SVG favicons. I like the idea of making sure dark mode is handled. I like the idea of doing this with as little code and files as possible. Anyone dig into this lately and want to enlighten me?

  1. “Visual” difference. Hm. I wonder what could be done for developers with visual impairments? Ideas?

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Where to Learn WordPress Theme Development

Over a decade ago, I did a little three-part video series on Designing for WordPress. Then I did other series with the same spirit, like videocasting the whole v10 redesign, a friend’s website, and even writing a book. Those are getting a little long in the tooth though. You might still learn from watching them if you’re getting into WordPress theme development, but there will be moments that feel very aged (old UI’s and old versions of software). All the code still works though, because WordPress is great at backward compatibility. I still hear from people who found those videos very helpful for them.

But since time has pressed on, and I was recently asked what resources I would suggest now, I figured I’d have a look around and see what looks good to me.

Do you like how I plopped the WordPress logo over some stock art I bought that features both a computer and a chalkboard, by which to evoke a feeling of “learning”? So good. I know.

Who are we talking to?

There’s a spectrum of WordPress developers, from people who don’t know any code at all or barely touch it, to hardcore programming nerds building custom everything.

  1. Pick out a theme that looks good, use it.
  2. 🤷‍♂️
  3. 🤷‍♂️
  4. 🤷‍♂️
  5. 🤷‍♂️
  6. Hardcore programmer nerd.

I can’t speak to anybody on either edge of that spectrum. There is this whole world of people in the middle. They can code, but they aren’t computer science people. They are get the job done people. Maybe it’s something like this:

  1. Pick out a theme that will work, use it.
  2. Start with a theme, customize it a bit using built-in tools.
  3. Start with a theme, hack it up with code to do what you need it to do.
  4. Start from scratch, build out what you need.
  5. Start from scratch, build a highly customized site.
  6. Hardcore programmer nerd.

I’ve always been somewhere around #4, and I think that’s a nice sweet spot. I try to let off-the-shelf WordPress and big popular plugins do the heavy lifting, but I’ll bring-my-own front-end (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) and customize what I have to. I’m making templates. I’m writing queries. I’m building blocks. I’m modularizing where I can.

I feel powerful in that zone. I can build a lot of sites that way, almost by myself. So where are the resources today that help you learn this kind of WordPress theme development? Lemme see what I can find.

Wing it, old school

There is something to be said for learning by doing. Trial by fire. I’ve learned a lot under these circumstances in my life.

The trick here is to get WordPress installed on a live server and then play with the settings, plugins, customizer, and edit the theme files themselves to make the site do things. You’ll find HTML in those theme files — hack it up! You’ll see PHP code spitting out content. Can you tell what and how to manipulate it? You’ll find a CSS file in the theme — edit that sucker!

Editing a WordPress theme and seeing what happens

The official documentation can help you somewhat here:

To some degree, I’m a fan of doing it live (on a production website) because it lends a sense of realness to what you are doing when you are a beginner. The stakes are high there, giving you a sense of the power you have. When I make these changes, they are for anyone in the world with an internet connection to see.

I did this in my formative years by buying a domain name and hosting, installing WordPress on that hosting, logging into it with SFTP credentials, and literally working on the live files. I used Coda, which is still a popular app, and is being actively developed into a new version of itself as I write.

This is Nova, a MacOS code editor from Panic that has SFTP built-in.

Hopefully, the stakes are real but low. Like you’re working on a pet project or your personal site. At some point, hacking on production sites becomes too dangerous of an idea. One line of misplaced PHP syntax can take down the entire site.

If you’re working on something like a client site, you’ll need to upgrade that workflow.

Modern winging it

The modern, healthy, standard way for working on websites is:

  1. Work on them locally.
  2. Use version control (Git), where new work is done in branches of the master branch.
  3. Deployment to the production website is done when code is pushed to the master branch, like your development branch is merged in.

I’ve done a recent video on this whole workflow as I do it today. My toolset is:

  • Work locally with Local by Flywheel.
  • My web hosting is also Flywheel, but that isn’t required. It could be anything that gives you SFTP access and runs what WordPress needs: Apache, PHP, and MySQL. Disclosure, Flywheel is a sponsor here, but because I like them and their service :).
  • Code is hosted on a private repo on GitHub.
  • Deployment to the Flywheel hosting is done by Buddy. Buddy watches for pushes to the master branch and moves the files over SFTP to the production site.
Local by Flywheel

Now that you have a local setup, you can go nuts. Do whatever you want. You can’t break anything on the live site, so you’re freer to make experimental changes and just see what happens.

When working locally, it’s likely you’ll be editing files with a code editor. I’d say the most popular choice these days is the free VS Code, but there is also Atom and Sublime, and fancier editors like PhpStorm.

The freedom of hacking on files is especially apparent once you’ve pushed your code up to a Git repo. Once you’ve done that, you have the freedom of reverting files back to the state of the last push.

I use the Git software Tower, and that lets me can see what files have changed since I last committed code. If I’ve made a mistake, caused a problem, or done something I don’t like — even if I don’t remember exactly what I changed — I can discard those changes back to their last state. That’s a nice level of freedom.

When I do commit code, to master or by merging a branch into master, that’s when Buddy kicks in and deploys the changes to the production site.

CSS-Tricks itself is a WordPress site, which has continuously evolved over 13 years.

But like, where do you start?

We’re talking about WordPress theme development here, so you start with a theme. Themes are literally folders of files in your WordPress installation.

root   - /wp-content/     - /themes/        - /theme-name/

WordPress comes with some themes right out of the box. As I write, the Twenty Twenty theme ships with WordPress, and it’s a nice one! You could absolutely start your theme hackin’ on that.

Themes tend to have some opinions about how they organize themselves and do things, and Twenty Twenty is no different. I’d say, perhaps controversially, that there is no one true way to organize your theme, so long as it’s valid code and does things the “WordPress” way. This is just something you’ll have to get a feel for as you make themes.

Starter themes

Starter themes were a very popular way to start building a theme from scratch in my day. I don’t have a good sense if that’s still true, but the big idea was a theme with all the basic theme templates you’ll need (single blog post pages, a homepage, a 404 page, search results page, etc.) with very little markup and no styling at all. That way you have an empty canvas from which to build out all your HTML, CSS, and JavaScript yourself to your liking. Sorta like you’re building any other site from scratch with these core technologies, only with some PHP in there spitting out content.

There was a theme called Starkers that was popular, but it’s dead now. I made one called BLANK myself but haven’t touched that in a long time. In looking around a bit, I found some newer themes with this same spirit. Here’s the best three I found:

I can’t personally vouch for them, but they’ve all been updated somewhat recently and look like pretty good starting points to me. I’d give them a shot in the case that I was starting from absolute scratch on a project. I’d be tempted to download one and then spruce it up exactly how I like it and save that as my own starter in case I needed to do it again.

It feels worth mentioning that a lot of web development isn’t starting from scratch, but rather working on existing projects. In that case, the process is still getting a local environment set up; you just aren’t starting from scratch, but with the existing theme. I’d suggest duplicating the theme and changing the name while you hack on it, so even if you deploy it, it doesn’t affect the live theme. Others might suggest using the starter as a “parent” theme, then branching off into a “child” theme.

To get your local development environment all synced up with exactly what the production website is like, I think the best tool is WP DB Migrate Pro, which can yank down the production database to your local site and all the media files (paid product and a paid add-on, worth every penny).

Fancier Starter Themes

Rather than starting from absolute scratch, there are themes that come with sensible defaults and even modern build processes for you start with. The idea is that building a site with essentially raw HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, while entirely doable, just doesn’t have enough modern conveniences to be comfortable.

Here are some.

  • Morten Rand-Hendriksen has a project called WP Rig that has all sorts of developer tools built into it. A Gulp-based build process spins up a BrowserSync server for auto updating. JavaScript gets processed in Babel. CSS gets processed in PostCSS, and code is linted. He teaches WordPress with it.
  • Roots makes a theme called Sage that comes with a templating engine, your CSS framework of choice, and fancy build process stuff.
  • Ignition has a build process and all sorts of helpers.
  • Timber comes with a templating engine and a bunch of code helpers.

I think all these are pretty cool, but are also probably not for just-starting-out beginner developers.

Books

This is tough because of how many there are. In a quick Google search, I found one site selling fifteen WordPress books as a bundle for $ 9.99. How would you even know where to start? How good can they be for that rock bottom price? I dunno.

I wrote a book with Jeff Starr ages ago called Digging Into WordPress. After all these years, Jeff still keeps the book up to date, so I’d say that’s a decent choice! Jeff has other books like The Tao of WordPress and WordPress Themes In Depth.

A lot of other books specifically about WordPress theme development are just fairly old. 2008-2015 stuff. Again, not that there isn’t anything to be learned there, especially as WordPress doesn’t change that rapidly, but still, I’d want to read a book more recent that half a decade old. Seems like a big opportunity for a target audience as large as WordPress users and developers. Or if there is already stuff that I’m just not finding, lemme know in the comments.

Perhaps learning is shifting so much toward online that people don’t write books as much…

Online learning courses

Our official learning partner Frontend Masters has one course on WordPress focused on JavaScript and WordPress, so that might not be quite perfect for learning the basics of theme development. Still, fascinating stuff.

Here’s some others that looked good to me while looking around:

Zac’s course looks like the most updated and perhaps the best option there.

A totally different direction for theme Development

One way to build a site with WordPress is not to use WordPress themes at all! Instead, you can use the WordPress API to suck data out of WordPress and build a site however the heck you please.

This idea of decoupling the CMS and the front end you build is pretty neat. It’s often referred to as using a “headless” CMS. It’s not for everyone. (One big reason is that, in a way, it doubles your technical debt.). But it can bring a freedom to both the CMS and the front end to evolve independently.

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A Headless CMS for You and Your Web Development Agency

(This is a sponsored post.)

Storyblok is a headless but component-based CMS with a built-in live-preview. You can use it for building fast and reliable websites and power native apps with your favorite technology.

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A headless content management system is a back-end only content management system (CMS) built from the ground up as a content repository that makes content accessible via a RESTful or GraphQL API for display on any device.

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Try Storyblok yourself

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