My Long Journey to a Decoupled WordPress Gatsby Site

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As a professional research biologist, my playground used to be science laboratories filled with microscopes, petri dishes, and biology tools. Curiosity leads many scientists on their journey to discoveries. Mine led me to web design. I used to try learning HTML on my lab desktop while centrifuging extraction samples or waiting for my samples to thaw or freeze. These wait times are valuable for writing experiment notes and even learn a new skill. For me, this meant learning basic HTML through editors, like HomeSite and later Dreamweaver, as well as many other online resources.

After leaving my science lab desk about a decade ago, I found a new playground. I was introduced to WordPress by a local web developer friend. This changed the course of my life. Learning web design is no longer a downtime activity — it has become the main activity of my daily life.

My first step: Learning theme development

I call myself a WordPress enthusiast and an avid WordPress user. I entered into the world of WordPress by learning to hack themes, my virtual guru“Building Themes from Scratch Using Underscores” by Morten Rand-Hendriksen. While learning to develop themes, I must have watched this tutorial countless times and quickly it became my go-to reference. While doing my learning projects, I often referred to Morten’s GitHub repository to learn from his themes. For my personal sites, I used my own themes which are inspired by Morten’s, like Kuhn, Popper and others.

I also learned how to build plugins and widgets for my own site, but I mostly stayed within theming. I built themes for my personal sites. My personal sites are like my three-ring binders: one for every subject area. My sites discourage search engines and are designed for archiving my personal learning and posting notes. This habit of writing and documenting every aspect of my projects was inspired by “Just Write” by Sara Soueidan.

A call to Learn JavaScript deeply

It all started with Matt Mullenweg‘s  call for WordPress developers to “learn JavaScript deeply” during the 2015 State of the Word address and the subsequent announcement of the Gutenberg block editor. Until then, I was a happy WordPress user and an aspiring WordPress developer. It was reported that JavaScript and API-driven Interfaces are the future of WordPress. Like other WordPress enthusiasts, I also acknowledged that JavaScript was  a must-have skill for WordPress development.

Thus, began my own JavaScript learning journey and road map. I used Zell Liew’s article “Learning JavaScript — where should you start and what to do when you’re stuck?”

Let me share my learning journey with you.

I started by looking at React and REST API-based themes

Since the official integration of the REST API in WordPress core, a few React-based themes have started popping up.

In my opinion, these themes appeared to be experimental. When the Foxhound theme was released, it was covered in CSS-Tricks as well as WordPress Tavern. I downloaded it to my test site, and it worked fine; however, I could not hack and learn from it given my limited familiarity with JavaScript and React.

I started digging into React

I used Robin Wieruch’s article “JavaScript fundamentals before learning React” as my JavaScript/React learning road map. While struggling to learn and understand React routing, I discovered Gatsby which utilizes @reach/router as a built-in feature, making routing a breeze. In my brief exploratory research, I learned that Gatsby is indeed a “React-based framework that helps developers build blazing fast websites and apps.” This led me to learn Gatsby while continuing to make progress on React. After a while, I immersed myself in my Gatsby projects and only occasionally returned to learning basic JavaScript and React.

I picked up Gatsby

Given that I had already done several small learning projects in React, understanding Gatsby was natural. Gatsby is said to be aimed at developers and not users. I did not find it that hard to learn and run my own simple Gatsby test sites.

Gatsby’s documentation and tutorials are well-written, helpful, and easy to follow. I decided to learn Gatsby using its tutorials and completing all eight parts as a means of “learning by doing.” While working on my projects, I consulted other guides and tutorial posts. The following two guides helped me to understand build concepts, add functionality and put together a reasonable Gatsby demo site:

For styling React components, there are several options which are covered on CSS-Trick. Some options include local inline CSS-in-JS, styled components and modular CSS. Gatsby components can also be styled with Sass using gatsby-plugin-sass, which makes the code more readable. Because of its familiarity and code readability, I chose styling with Sass; however, I recognize the value of CSS modules as well.

Resources for integrating Gatsby and WordPress

My Gatsby learning didn’t stop there. In fact, Gatsby has been the most significant part of my learning curve more recently. Here’s everything I found throughout my learning journey that I hope will serve you as well on your own journey.

There are many sites already running on Gatsby. Those who have migrated to Gatsby seem to be happy, especially with the blazingly fast speed and the improved security it offers.

Commenting in Gatsby

WordPress has natively supported comments for a long, long time. Gatsby sites are serverless-static, so posting comments is an issue since they are dynamic and requires a client side service.

Some Gatsby and React developers seem to leave commenting and interactions on their own personal sites to Twitter. Others seem to reach for Disqus. If you are interested, this Northstack tutorial describes in detail how to bring WordPress comments over to Gatsby.

WordPress Gatsby themes

I first became aware of WordPress ported Tabor for Gatsby theme from WordPress Tavern. It was developed by Rich Tabor and is freely available on GitHub (demo). From there, two WordPress-inspired Gatsby themes became available through the Gatsby Theme Jam project. One was by Alexandra Spalato called Gatsby Theme WordPress Starter (demo) and the other by Andrey Shalashov called WordPress Source Theme (demo).

In 2019, a team of Gatsby and WPGraphQL developers led by Jason Bahl, Muhammad Muhsin, Alexandra Spalato, and Zac Gordon announced a project that ports WordPress themes to Gatsby. Zac, talking to WordPress Tavern, said the project would offer both free and paid premium themes. At the time of this writing, five themes were listed with no free download.

Decoupled Gatsby WordPress starters

The current Gatsby starer library lists ten WordPress-compatible starter themes, including a more recent one by Henrik Wirth that ports the WordPress Twenty Twenty theme — stylesheets and fonts — to Gatsby. Although the theme is still a work-in-progress with some limitations (e.g. no support for tags, monthly archives, and comments). Nevertheless, it is a great project and uses a new experimental Gatsby Source plugin for WordPress.

Another popular starter is gatsby-starter-wordpress by Gatsby Central.

Gatsby WordPress themes from GitHub

There are other popular Gatsby themes that are available at GitHub. The Twenty Nineteen WordPress Gatsby Theme is a port of the Twenty Nineteen WordPress Theme by Zac Gordon and Muhammad Muhsin.

Experimental plugins

There are also two new GraphQL plugins for WordPress that are under development and only available on GitHub at the moment. One is Gatsby Source WordPress Experimental by Tyler Barnes. This is a re-written version of current Gatsby Source WordPress plugin using WPGraphQL for data sourcing, as well as a custom WPGatsby plugin that transforms WPGraphQL schema in Gatsby-specific ways.

The other one is Gatsby WordPress Gutenberg which is still being developed by Peter Pristas. Its documentation is available over at the GatsbyWPGutenberg Docs site.

Step-by-step guides

Despite the ongoing progress in Gatsby WordPress theme development, I could not locate any detailed how-to guides written for beginners like me. Mohammad Mohsin wrote up a thorough guide over at Smashing magazine in 2018, explaining how he developed his Celestial React theme using the WordPress REST API. The other tutorial is another one he wrote about porting the Twenty Nineteen WordPress Theme to Gatsby, which uses WPGraphQL for WordPress data sourcing.

More recently, there have been two additional guides that I’ve benefited from:

Finally, my own partially ported Gatsby site

Everything covered so far is what has fueled me to create my own WordPress Gatsby site. While it was a large technical task, the guides I’ve referenced, in addition to the experimental plugins and existing documentation for Gatsby made it so much easier than if I had attempted to figure it out on my own.

Here is the result. While it’s still a work in progress, it’s awesome to see it working. I’ve written up a complete step-by-step walkthrough on how I made it, which will publish next week here on CSS-Tricks. So stay tuned!

What’s next on the horizon for Gatsby and WordPress?

I am still keeping my eyes on the two experimental WordPress plugins I mentioned earlier. I plan to revisit the project once those are officially released, hopefully in the WordPress Plugin Directory. This recent tweet thread highlights the current status of porting content from the WordPress block editor to a decoupled WordPress Gatsby theme.

In a recent WordCamp Spain 2020 session, Matt Mullenweg said that the demand for decoupled WordPress sites is growing:

But for people who are building more advanced applications or have some sort of constraint on their website where they need the React frontend, I think the decoupled use case of WordPress is stronger than ever. 

Dan Abramov agrees:

Taking with Sarah Gooding of WPTavern, Gatsby WP Themes project members Zac Gordon and Jason Bahl also confessed that the “most current Gatsby WordPress themes are directed for businesses and developers, they are not suitable for beginners.” Let’s hope the future fixes that!

My personal take

Based on my very limited experience, I think that currently available Gatsby WordPress themes are not ready for prime time use for users like me. Yeah, it is exciting to try something on the bleeding edge that’s clearly in the minds of many WordPress users and developers. At the same time, the constantly evolving work being done on the WordPress block editor, WPGraphQL and Gatsby source WordPress plugins makes it difficult to predict where things are going and when it will settle into a state where it is safe to use in other contexts. Until then, it’s a frustrating experience to work on something only to have the API or the interface change on you.

For my own personal uses, a normal Gatsby site is enough, I could get content with Markdown files without any hassles associated with decoupling WordPress. For larger agency sites… I can see why having a decoupled solution would make a lot of sense for them and their clients.

Remember, I’ll be sharing my tutorial next week — see you then!