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Introducing Gatsby Themes

Chris Biscardi
November 11th, 2018

Gatsby is a powerful platform for building marketing sites, blogs, e-commerce frontends, and more. You can source data from static files and any number of content management systems. You can process images, add support for our favorite styling technique, transform markdown, and just about anything else you can imagine.

At its core, a Gatsby site is a combination of functionality centered around a single config file, gatsby-config.js. This config file controls an assortment of site metadata, data type mapping, and most importantly, plugins. Plugins contain large amounts of customizable functionality for turning markdown into pages, processing components into documentation, and even processing images.

Scaling Gatsby

Creating a single Gatsby site works super well. The power of gatsby-config.js, plugins, and more coalesce to make the experience a breeze. However, what if you want to re-use this configuration on our next site? Sure, you could clone a boilerplate each time, but that gets old, quickly. Wouldn't it be great if you could re-use our gatsby-config.js across projects? That's where starters come in.

Improving Reusability with Starters

One way to create more sites with similar functionality faster is to use starters. Starters are basically whole Gatsby sites that can be scaffolded through the gatsby CLI. This helps you start your project by cloning the boilerplate, installing dependencies, and clearing Git history. The community around Gatsby has built a lot of different starters for various use cases including blogging, working with material design, and documentation.

The problem with starters is that they're one-offs. Starters are boilerplate projects that begin to diverge immediately from upstream and have no easy way of updating when changes are made upstream. There's another approach to boilerplate that has become popular in recent years that fixes some problems with the boilerplate approach such as updating with upstream. One such project is create-react-app. In the Gatsby world, you can improve on starters similarly with themes.

Truly Reusable Themes in Gatsby

If a single gatsby-config.js encodes the functionality of a whole Gatsby site, then if you can compose the gatsby-config.js data structure together you have the base for themes. You can encode portions of our gatsby-config as themes and re-use them across sites. This is a big deal because you can have a theme config (or multiple configs) that composes together with the custom config (for the current site). Upgrading the underlying theme does not undo the customizations, meaning you get upstream improvements to the theme without a difficult manual upgrade process.

Why Themes?

Defining themes as the base composition unit of Gatsby sites allows us to start solving a variety of use cases. For example, when a site gets built as part of a wider product offering it's often the case that one team will build out a suite of functionality, including branding elements, and the other teams will mostly consume this functionality. Themes allow us to distribute this functionality as an npm package and allow the customization of various branding elements through our gatsby-config.js.

Mechanics of Theming

At a base level, theming combines the gatsby-config.js of the theme with the gatsby-config.js of your site. Since it's an experimental feature, you use an experimental namespace to declare themes in the config.

Themes often need to be parameterized for various reasons, such as changing the base url for subsections of a site or applying branding variables. You can do this through the theme options if you define our theme's gatsby-config as a function that returns an object.

Themes also function as plugins and any config passed into the theme in your gatsby-config.js will also be passed to your theme's gatsby-*.js files as plugin options. This allows themes to override any settings inherited from the theme's own plugin declarations or apply gatsby lifecycle hooks such as onCreatePage.

Check out the theme examples in this multi-package repo for more examples of using and building themes: https://github.com/ChristopherBiscardi/gatsby-theme-examples.

Next Steps

Sub Themes and Overriding

This is just the first step and it enables us to experiment with further improvements in userland before merging them into core. Sub-theming, for example, is a critical part of a theming ecosystem that is currently missing from Gatsby. Overriding theme elements is possible on a coarse level right now in userland. If, for example, a theme defines a set of pages using createPage you can define a helper function that will look for the page component first in the user's site and then fall back to the theme's default implementation.

Then in our theme's createPage call, you simply use the helper to let the user optionally override the default component.

This doesn't allow us to make more granular overrides of different components, but it does allow us to replace the rendering of pages and other whole elements. Component Shadowing, a more granular method of overriding, is already in the works.

If you want to be involved in the development of theming for Gatsby, join the Spectrum community for Gatsby themes.

I'll also be talking about theming Gatsby at Gatsby Days on Dec 7th covering how Gatsby got here and where theming is going next.

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Early stage software product consultant. React*, Go, GraphQL, Containers, k8s.

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