During the final discussion section of my most recent MediaBistro WordPress class (October-November 2012), one of my students unintentionally asked me a trick question: “How long did it take you to get good at WordPress?”
My first thought, honestly, was “Wait–am I good at WordPress?” Then I realized that she probably didn’t mean Andrew Nacin good, and might even mean “How long did it take not to be a hopeless n00b?” So I asked her to define “good.”
“Enough to be happy with a site you created and others said it looked good.”
Okay, now here’s the difficult part.
First, those are actually two different standards. You and your clients will almost inevitably occupy different positions on the perfectionism spectrum. They might be satisfied well before you are, or you may encounter that blessedly rare client who is never satisfied. In general, I tend to want to build Cadillac websites even when clients are only asking (and paying) for Chevies, but I have had a few thoroughly nit-picking clients. (Clients, and of course the people who use their websites, are the main “others” whose opinion of the sites matters.)
Second, the first time I ever built a site with WordPress, I was happy just to have built it. The year was 2005 and WordPress was only on version 1.5. Prior to this version of WordPress, there were no pages, only posts. Themes with different templates for different types of content (index, single posts, categories, pages, etc.) had just been introduced.
It was not possible to build the kind of site that you can build with WordPress today. WordPress was still a blogging tool, not a proper content management system. To build even the predecessor of the kind of site that my student was talking about, the kind of site she wanted for herself, I actually had to wait for a few years.
It was 2007 when I first started to build actual websites with WordPress. That was the year that WordPress started out on its rapid growth curve: 2.1, 2.2, 2.3. Then WordPress 2.5 burst onto the scene in 2008, and things really started to get interesting. It was around then that I started moving away from building HTML sites.
I didn’t actually start breathing and sleeping WordPress until 2009, after joining (and then getting recruited to organize) the East Bay WordPress Meetup, but it really wasn’t a question of how long did it take to master WordPress theme design, but how long did it take WordPress to become a tool for building sophisticated websites.
If you start out knowing some CSS and HTML (and at the beginning I knew more HTML than CSS, having begun my web adventures in the very early days before CSS was even thought of, never mind PHP), it’s not hard to customize themes, and the invention of child themes combined with custom CSS plugins (I do find that aspect of Jetpack very handy, particularly for testing) saves you from having to reinvent the wheel.
If you don’t know anything about any of those things at all, and you want a custom site rather than an existing theme with a bit of tweaking, you’re going to have to spend a good number of months devoting yourself to learning some basic skills as well as the time you need to master the WordPress-specific material. If you devote several hours to it each day, you’ll get to be good at it quickly. If it’s only an hour here and there separated by weeks, you’re likely to struggle.
But at least you no longer have to wait for WordPress to catch up with your aspirations.