Patterns are gonna be a game changer for WordPress

Patterns are pre-designed bits of content that can be used to quickly design page sections or full page layouts. Learn more about the power of patterns in this tutorial.

Ollie Patterns

The past few years have produced a wealth of new technology and features for the world’s most popular CMS. It all started with WordPress 5.0, released in December 2018. This release included the much-anticipated block editor, a way of building content visually with block-based elements (paragraphs, images, buttons, columns, etc.).

Although this was a huge paradigm shift, and required quite a bit of getting used to, this change was widely praised as a necessary evolution of content creation in WordPress. This addition was a huge leap forward for WordPress, modernizing the software and helping it compete with flashier, faster-evolving website alternatives.

The block editor laid the groundwork for the larger ambitions of WordPress 5.9, when full site editing was released into the software. With 5.9, we were getting closer to the larger vision of being able to create your whole site with blocks, not just post and page content.

When WordPress 6.0 was released in May of 2022, another new paradigm was added to WordPress — patterns. Patterns are pre-designed page elements that can be used to quickly design a page section or a full page layout.

Each WordPress theme can ship with its own patterns (as seen above), and you can also mix and match patterns from different sources to create virtually any layout that you can imagine.

More importantly, instead of designing a page from scratch, WordPress creators can now lean on patterns to quickly prototype or design their full website in the new WordPress Site Editor with little or no code involved. (This whole website is made with Ollie patterns!)

You might even be able to finally ditch that page builder plugin that has been weighing down your wallet and your website. We can do page building right within the native WordPress editor now.

It’s still early

Right now, patterns have a fairly rudimentary implementation — they are just a collection of pre-arranged blocks that can be added to your content. And once patterns are added to a page, WordPress just treats them like the rest of your content. WordPress no longer knows or cares that it’s a pattern, which limits what’s possible with this feature.

On top of that, there currently isn’t a dedicated interface for building patterns in WordPress. Luckily, there are some solutions in the works for both developers and content creators.

In its current implementation, it’s easy to look at patterns as a simple design feature, one that you might even opt out of entirely. But I’m here to tell you that things are about to get really interesting, and patterns will be a definitive game-changer for WordPress site building.

Smarter patterns

Lets inject a little imagination into the pattern paradigm. We can already imagine the baseline value of patterns: a collection of aesthetically-cohesive page elements that all click together to allow you to build beautiful page layouts. That alone is a massive improvement for a CMS as prolific as WordPress is, but patterns are about to get a lot more powerful than that.

What if, for starters, patterns were a treated more like intelligent components? What if instead of being treated as just a collection of blocks, patterns were an entity that WordPress could use as a conduit to do more advanced site building?

Going global

Let’s say you insert a call to action pattern into 5 pages of your website right now. Oops! You forgot to add a link to the call to action button in the pattern. The only way to fix this is to go through each page and add the link manually to each pattern.

We can do better than that! If patterns were treated more like template parts (globally synced and editable), we could add a pattern to a dozen pages, and if we needed to make a change, we could make that change in one place and let the change propagate to all the pages that use it.

Concept for a more capable pattern workflow

On pages where we want the pattern to live without being affected by global changes, we can “detach” it, allowing a unique version to exist on the page, unaffected by changes to the global pattern. The ability to detach currently exists with template parts.

Take control

If you’re a freelancer or agency developer, you know that oftentimes clients need safeguards to prevent them from accidentally removing important content or breaking a layout. In WordPress 5.9, we gained the ability to lock down blocks and templates to prevent unwanted editing of specific page elements.

This gives us a lot more control, while still allowing the client to modify the content of their site without a concern for breaking something. However, this implementation leaves a big gap between being able to lock down a full template and lock down individual blocks.

Enter pattern locking. By allowing this kind of control on the pattern level, we can really start to take control of our designs and reduce the amount of complexity we’re exposing clients to. With pattern-level capabilities, we can restrict or allow the editing of content, styles, block insertion, and more to provide a more predictable outcome for clients.

Spice it up

What if I have the same pattern, but I want a light and a dark version of it? Currently, we have to create two versions of this pattern, even if the content is exactly the same and the only difference is minor style changes.

Concept for color variations on a pattern

With a more intelligent pattern system, ideally, we can build variations right into our pattern and tie into already-available styles in theme.json. Just like how we can add variation styles to blocks, we would be able to add variation styles to patterns as well.

Wrapping up

These are just a few musings I’ve had during my deep dive into block themes and patterns over the past few months. What kind of features would you like to see with WordPress patterns?

If you haven’t had a chance to dig into patterns yet, I encourage you to start experimenting now! These magical little design elements are going to become the foundation of WordPress-based page building for many years to come.

5 responses to “Patterns are gonna be a game changer for WordPress”

  1. Steffen Bang Nielsen Avatar
    Steffen Bang Nielsen

    Globally synced and editable patterns, where any change is propagated to all the pages that use it. Isn’t that pretty much reusable blocks – a feature that’s been around like forever in Gutenberg, though mostly forgotten and neglected and not receiving the love it deserves.

    1. Mike McAlister Avatar

      Indeed, this would mimmic the reusable blocks concept, but perhaps be more thoughtful in its execution. Maybe the two concepts even merge in pursuit of something more universal.

    2. Matthew Hunt Avatar

      The key difference is that reusable blocks assume the same content. This presents a solution for the problem of consistency among components. If you were to create such a smart pattern it would allow you to sync the set styles for that pattern, and have different content. Or, maybe even block style differences as pointed out in the dark mode example. This solution is something that we only accomplish right now with ACF blocks or custom blocks. Pattern creation is faster than creating a whole new block type. Larger sites are more reluctant right now (in my opinion) to use the block editor (unless using acf blocks) because of the challenge with keeping consistent styles and layouts across multiple pages.

  2. Lou Avatar

    Can I use an Ollie pattern block without activating the Ollie theme?

    1. Mike McAlister Avatar

      Hi there, right now you’d need the theme to use it. However, you could copy the pattern from the theme and paste it into another theme and use it.

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