I want everything we do to be beautiful. I don’t give a damn whether the client understands that that’s worth anything, or that the client thinks it’s worth anything, or whether it is worth anything. It’s worth it to me. It’s the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares. –Saul Bass

I was doing my routine morning Twitter scan recently when I came across a few alarming tweets by one of my WordPress theme developer peers. Before I continue, let it be known that I’m not calling anybody out here, including Dany. Many, many designers and developers are plagued by this forthcoming misconception. These tweets in particular were only the catalyst to a rant that has been building up in my head for months, if not years.

The Problem at Hand

There has been this idea across the ThemeForest marketplace (in particular) that buyers know exactly what they want and that we must facilitate that need no matter what it takes. You want 1000 options? Done. You want 10,000 fonts (I shit you not)? Done. You want the same layout as 90% of the themes on ThemeForest? Done. You want the same headaches as all the other buyers? Done.

When you take a step back, it’s easy to see that many times the addition of endless theme customization options and cookie cutter layouts often make up for the lack of design direction a theme has to begin with. “If I can’t design it, I’ll give them the tools to do it themselves.” Sadly, this model has worked for years now and made many theme “developers” wealthy in the process.

Some will hide behind the argument that their themes are meant to be customized, and therefore lack a need for a specific or unique design direction. A jack of all trades, master of none masterpiece meant to be whatever kind of theme you want it to be. This is a lazy and tired argument, in my opinion. If this is the kind of theme you are actually providing, I would expect your code to be nothing short of spectacular in return. But I’m guessing that’s probably not the case. And if it were, you wouldn’t be on ThemeForest to begin with.

As designers and developers, you have a responsibility to curate quality code and aesthetic for your customers. We also have a responsibility to keep the web visually engaging. Simply providing a sub-par product with an asterisk isn’t enough anymore.

The Blame Game

So whose fault is this anyway? Why can’t we innovate anymore? If regurgitated drivel is what theme buyers want, well then that’s what we have to give them, right? And so the vicious, perpetual cycle begins.

There are a few things wrong with this. Firstly, don’t point fingers at the customers who are paying your rent. If they are making uneducated decisions about what’s best for them, then we aren’t doing our jobs as designers and developers. It’s up to the community at large to educate WordPress users, both newbies and so-called veterans. That’s the best part of this community, the willingness of everyone to share the knowledge available.

Secondly, theme buyers only want the same theme because that’s what you keep shoving down their throats. Give them a well thought-out alternative and I guarantee they’ll bite. This concept that unique themes don’t sell on ThemeForest (or anywhere else) is bullshit. I assure you, buyers are begging for something different. Why do you think every time a new, well-executed theme comes along, it does big numbers and is copied for months thereafter?

Designers have the power. Developers have the power. For if it wasn’t for them, there would be nothing to be desired by consumers. You create it, they’ll consume it.

The Art of Taking Risks

Are sales the only incentive to create quality products anymore? Are we only willing to take a risk if the reward is guaranteed in a dollar amount? I hear this kind of complaint all the time:

I can’t afford to risk trying something new or something too different because I know it won’t sell.

If you can’t take that gamble, then what kind of business are you really aspiring to have? Do you want to run a business that’s a slave to the trends or do you want to set those trends and have a little more control over the marketplace? There is no longevity in following trends. While it might make you a quick buck, it’s not a sound business plan.

Honestly, if you’re not taking the initiative to innovate, I’m not sure how much room you have to complain about marketplace conditions. You can try to blame it on the buyer, but in the end it’s in your hands. Imagine running a business the rest of your life where you can’t innovate because of your customers. Is that an acceptable business model? Would you join a company who ran their business that way? Certainly not, and it shouldn’t be an acceptable model in your business either.

The Price of Doing Business

I’ve designed and developed outside of the box plenty of times, and paid dearly for it. I’ve had themes flop just like everyone else. There have been months where low sales forced me back into client work to make up or my deviations. But even after several flops, I still ignore the marketplace trends and go about theming my own way. It usually takes me four times as long to create something, but at the end I love what I’ve created and I’m happy to share it with my peers and buyers. And while I don’t usually do big sales numbers off the bat, my themes do sell consistently, usually for years after their initial release. Longevity. It’s a beautiful thing.

Hate to break it to you folks, but the commercial theme sales boom of two years ago is over. The days of releasing a theme and grabbing nearly a hundred sales in a day are no more. It’s time to smarten up and start creating products that solve problems, not create them.