Joen Asmussen

Our guest today works for Automattic and is currently leading the design of our beloved post editor. He was nominated by Konstantin Obenland, who described him as “an insanely talented designer”. Previously, he contributed to Twenty Thirteen (the theme Matt Mullenweg uses in his personal site!) and the redesign of the Dashboard. He’s done some incredible things and has a refreshing view on the WordPress ecosystem. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome Joen Asmussen!

Thanks for the interview, Joen. It’s a pleasure to have you here! For those who read us and don’t know you, please tell us something about you and your relationship with WordPress.

My name is Joen Asmussen, I’m a graphic designer located in Denmark. I work for Automattic on lots of interesting things. Currently I’m working with my friend and colleague Matías Ventura on improving the WordPress post editor.

I started using WordPress in version 1.2, just around the time when Mark Pilgrim wrote a famous article called Freedom 0. It was a compelling read, and was indirectly responsible for getting me into open source in general. WordPress had just become the best out there at the time, even if it was very far from being perfect.

The fact that you could hack on it, make it your own, really got me on board. Eventually I started freelancing, building WordPress websites for clients, and even started contributing a little bit back upstream. I’ve now worked on things related to WordPress for more than a decade, and I owe this piece of software, and especially the community that builds it quite a lot.

WordPress is constantly changing and evolving. How do you stay up-to-date? Who do you follow?

Primarily the WordPress Slack where I lurk, but WP Tavern is also a good grapevine to listen in on. I have WordPress News in my feed reader, as well as a bunch of the Make blogs.

What’s the contribution or development you’re most proud of?

There’s this thing with design where you look back at your past work and all you see are its flaws, or how you’d do something different today. Some of this is growing in skill, some of it is simply times changing and software features or designs once critical becoming irrelevant simply through the passage of time.

The great thing about open source, though, is that your contributions, however small or big, not only benefit thousands or millions of people, but they also form the foundation for future improvements. That’s a good feeling, and so simply having contributed to WordPress is what I’m the most proud of. That said, I’m very proud to have worked on Twenty Thirteen and the MP6 project.

Sometimes we make things look easy, when they aren’t… Why don’t you share an epic fail with us?

Failing at something is a great way to learn. And let’s just say we learned a lot from trying to redesign the WordPress admin in the “Shuttle” project. There’s a lot of nuance to the project; the design was fine, but in implementation it didn’t go too well, and it served to highlight a number of challenges that exist when designing for an open source project.

One of those challenges is that the whole world can have an opinion on your work. The great benefit of this is that you can get a diversity of feedback that is unparalleled. The main downside is that no change is too small to discuss, which can end up being a very time consuming task on its own.

WordPress is highly customizable, thanks to both plugins and themes. What plugins and themes do you recommend? Do you miss anything in WordPress?

There’s really only one plugin I always install on any WordPress site I work on: WP Super Cache. It’s the only caching plugin I’ve found that is reliable, solid, doesn’t break in unpredictable ways, and gets updated regularly. For themes, I’m not the most interesting person to ask — I either use one of the Twenty themes (the most recent ones have been amazing!), or I roll my own minimal version.

There’s plenty of people working on WordPress (or considering to). Do you think it’s possible to make a living out of it? In your opinion, what business opportunities are there?

Layers of questions here. Is it possible to make a living off of WordPress? Absolutely. I have a shared co-working space that I share with a couple of developers, who use WordPress and Magento as their CMS‘es of choice. They’ve been doing this for a decade, and they make a great living.

Is it possible to make a living contributing to WordPress? Absolutely. 10up, Human Made, Automattic and others are the obvious examples of this, sponsoring employees to work on WordPress.

Back when I was freelance, the thing I loved about WordPress was the fact that I could re-use my code. For every project I finished, I could shave time off the next project by re-using plugins or themes I’d refined. In turn this meant I could give better estimates, and sometimes even finish early. WordPress was never perfect, though, and instead of building and installing plugins to fix inherent problems in WordPress, it seemed obvious to contribute improvements upstream; fix it once, fix it for all. I think this thought has probably come up for anyone who’ve run a small WordPress shop for an extended amount of time: what if WordPress was like this out of the box, then I wouldn’t have to install this plugin on all my clients sites? The key is realizing that WordPress is made by people, and you can be one of them.

Where do you see WordPress in 2 to 3 years? How would you like it to evolve?

In order to stay relevant in the future, I fear WordPress needs to change quite a bit, and in somewhat fundamental ways. The REST API was the first big step towards some of the changes that probably need to happen if people are going to be using WordPress in the future.

The thing is, there’s a new wave of software coming which is characterized by a fresh approach to technology that has otherwise stood still for decades. Who would’ve thought we’d write 90% JavaScript apps ten years ago? The thing is, with Node and GitHub, it’s exciting and even fun to develop for these apps. On its own, that fact isn’t a threat to the honed and solid foundation of WordPress, and for the casual user, WordPress remains the obvious choice. But we’re not that far from hosts offering one-click installs of faster, slimmer, and more modern WordPress alternatives.

On the flipside, the REST API is proof that WordPress can modernize and remain vibrant, and even bring the best of the honed legacy along with it. But relevance in the long term will likely require a fair bit of courage, lots of REST, and more JavaScript than many are comfortable with.

Finally, who should we interview next? Tell us 3 WProfessionals you want to see here.

There’s a chance you’ve interviewed them before, but three of my WordPress heroines are Helen, Mika, and Ella. In no particular order.

Thanks again for your taking the time to answer our questions, Joen. Stay tuned for the upcoming interviews!

Featured image by John Godley.

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