Initial thoughts on using Gutenberg

Dan talks about his experience of developing the new Headscape site, with a focus on working with the Gutenberg editor.

Important Disclaimer: ​​I was reluctant to provide any thoughts in writing, because for reasons that should become quickly evident, any opinion I express now will almost certainly be out of date by the time I’ve finished writing it.

As you may (or may not) have noticed, we recently redesigned our site. The goal was three-fold:

  • Update the design, while making some performance improvements
  • Decouple the site from Boagworld (in a previous redevelopment we’d built them on WordPress Multisite in order to share content)
  • Experiment with the development of a site with the Gutenberg editor (which at the time of writing is still in development).

One of the simpler things we did that had a big impact on performance compared to the old site was an audit of imagery, notably lazy-loading content on the huge, image-heavy work listing page.

The decoupling from Boagworld was super-simple. I was impressed at how well the built-in WordPress Import/Export tool for posts/pages worked having not used it in quite some time. We just grabbed the small amount of content we needed from the old multisite and started with a completely clean install, a couple of the usual suspects in terms of plugins (ACF for life, big props to @elliotcondon), and the gutenberg-starter-theme from GitHub (a lot of which it looks like is making its way into twentynineteen). Clean codebases make me happy.

Getting used to Gutenberg and working out what we could/couldn’t/should/shouldn’t do with it at that stage was obviously the biggest chunk of work, which I’m using as a scapegoat for anything that didn’t get done in terms of perfect optimisation and finishing touches, as it took up the largest amount of time by far.

As a project Gutenberg has come a long way very quickly, and is still making leaps and bounds at frightening speed, but while that’s great in some ways, that’s also kind of the problem.

I haven’t checked in the last four minutes, so everything might have changed again, but certainly at the time we were building with it getting started with even pretty basic stuff is a pretty steep learning curve. The documentation is scarce-at-best, and if you can find it, there’s a very good chance it’s now out of date because everything got updated again the day after it was written.

The reason I used to love and praise WordPress quite so much when using it was the comprehensive documentation in their Codex, and how easy it was to find what you needed and use it. But now?!

I’m glad we used Gutenberg to get a feel for it from both a content editor and developer/themer perspective, and I’m pleased with what we’ve thrown together, especially what you see client-side. But the constantly changing nature of it means it’s far from what I’d call polished. I guess to some extent that’s just the modern web now?

I’m very, very eager to see how ACF Blocks for Gutenberg will make adding custom stuff to the editor ‘easier’ for those – like myself – who admittedly simply aren’t confident enough with modern JS to either be able to, or want to get their hands that dirty in cracking it open to extend it. I’d quite like to, but again, there’s such a steep learning curve, and when it’s changing quite so frequently with such vague documentation, it seems tricky and fruitless at times.

Building with Gutenberg in any way at the moment feels a lot like trying to build a house of cards in a light wind while someone imposingly stands behind you revving up a leaf-blower every so often just for the sake of it. I don’t like working like that. Maybe that’s on me, maybe I’m becoming a dinosaur, I don’t know.

I came across a couple of articles from people experiencing similar issues as me – We tried converting a bespoke website design in WordPress, for example, which led to some thoroughly Churchill-the-dog-style nodding along in agreement, so at least I’m not the only one, which is at least a tad reassuring.

I’m glad we’ve chosen now to do a couple of WordPress projects (alongside our regular Drupal work), because it’s an interesting insight to progress. I’ll be trying to keep track of it as closely as is moderately sensible to do so to see how we can best utilise it as a tool.

With time, I do have high hopes for what we’ll perhaps be able to create with it. But, there’s another debate on whether we should be managing entire page layouts in a WYSIWYG. 

Right now, it seems best utilised as what it is, and nothing more: a ​post​ editor. For a content editor to create engaging single-column article content with nice alignments of images, galleries and perhaps the odd custom block, all with interesting alignments (mostly) built right in.

When used to its strengths, it’s a great tool. Just don’t expect miracles in terms of complex manageable page layouts (yet) unless you are a miracle-worker.

Dan Sheerman's avatar
Dan Sheerman
25 October 2018