The new WordPress editor Gutenberg: what it means for you

What it is, why it's needed and what WordPress could have done better

For users of WordPress-based websites, many of them got a nasty surprise over the holiday season as WordPress released version 5.0. As part of the 5.0 release, WordPress has completely replaced the aging TinyMCE editor with what is known as Gutenberg, a brand new editor built from the ground up intended to allow the ability to create more modern and advanced page layouts.

Gutenberg was clearly developed in response to the fresher / dynamic editors like Squarespace offers, or that of premium WordPress plugins like Visual Composer. Frankly the vanilla editor in WordPress has always been limiting and depended on editing theme templates or janky concepts (like shortcodes) to build complex layouts on the fly. Another shortcoming is that the editor doesn’t reflect the live appearance of the content, either. This is a big problem in a modern web and WordPress desperately needed a new native solution.

To say that Gutenberg hasn’t been a success out of the gate is an understatement: angry WordPress users have literally been review-bombing the project’s plug-in section. While there is legitimate criticism against Gutenberg, most of it honestly comes off as knee-jerk, single sentence responses for simply being different from what they are used to.

I don’t think a lot of users actually understand what Gutenberg does.

Personally, I’ve found my experience with Gutenberg to be fairly positive thus far. Nearly all my posts on a development site converted over to the new format just fine, with the exception of some arbitrary code I used in some posts – flimsy workarounds to begin with. Gutenberg appears to use (or replace) some CSS classes or formatting that might require stylesheet theme updates, which is what I think is drawing a lot of the complaints of layouts breaking or “bugs.”

The underlying code the editor generates seems to be cleaner, versus the old one which loved to wrap extra tags around everything. Much functionality requiring custom plugins or workarounds can now be rolled into insertable blocks types in the editor.

While a common complaint is that the new editor puts literally everything in blocks, this is actually closer to how the web works. Similar to Squarespace’s editor, this new approach lets users insert responsive, multi-column layouts between text without having to resort to wrapping paragraphs in shortcodes, HTML or utilizing plugins. (Responsive page breaking is handled for you, should your theme be updated for Gutenberg.)

At the same time, I can perfectly understand why users are apprehensive to work in this way. To them, the classic WordPress editor was familiar: similar to using word processing programs like Microsoft Word. After all, WordPress was originally a writing / blogging platform. Asking users with that workflow to change their thinking to a block-based format is the antithesis of what they’ve known. (And doing it so suddenly is demanding a lot.)

As I said, Gutenberg does have some legitimate flaws and ridiculous oversights worth griping about that hopefully will be improved upon; the editor is early in its lifespan, after all. But for that reason, I think WordPress made a big mistake on how it handled the release. Despite teasing the new editor for a while, I really don’t think it was a good idea to force the update in version 5.0 upon existing users so quickly while Gutenberg is in its infancy.

Currently WordPress does offer an optional plugin to restore the classic editor, but I think this should have been included as part of the stock update with a built-in option to enable or disable it upon completing the update. (Some users I know didn’t even know about the availability of the classic editor plugin.)

Pushing migration is important as the classic editor will only be supported up until 2022. But at this point in time, I would have given existing WordPress sites the option to disable Gutenberg upon completing the update, while leaving it enabled as the default for new site installations to encourage new users to work in the new way.

As Gutenberg will have matured by the next major release of WordPress and themes will have had time to be updated for it, then I would have started making it the default for everyone and move the classic editor off into the plugin to eventually be deprecated. In other words, I think WordPress did everything about one version too early.

At any rate, Gutenberg is here to stay…and everything will be okay. I think users will eventually warm up to it as it does offer many advantages, though admittedly difficult to fully appreciate or realize those benefits at this time.

I also imagine I’m going to be quite busy with updating sites, themes and reeducating clients. But no one ever said that web design was a consistent field.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.