Elmastudio is a WordPress theme shop run by Ellen Bauer and Manuel Esposito. Their approach to themes in unique, with interesting layouts and minimalist artful design. Even content for the theme demos has original photography and writing.
We talked a few months ago via Skype, soon after the release of Onigiri and Ponsonby. We discussed the design process, finding inspiration, traveling, and the WordPress community. I was inspired by the creativity and passion they bring to their craft. We talked for a little over an hour, which I edited that down to about 45 minutes of audio. I also wrote up much of the interview for you to read below. Hope you enjoy both!
Interview with Ellen Bauer and Manuel Esposito
I get the impression that you both come from more of an art background, or at least that’s how you approach it. Can you give me some background on how you got started building WordPress themes and decided to form your studio?
E: We met in art school in our home town about 12 years ago, so we have the same background of design and art. We studied in two different design fields and also in different cities, but we always worked together on final exam projects. Manuel actually studied industrial and car design and I studied visual communications. We always met up for projects in university and after graduation, and we just wanted to do something together.
M: As an industrial designer, it’s quite hard to get freelance work. It was a lot of model making and very expensive tools and stuff like that so there was no chance for us to work together in this field. Instead, we started building websites.
E: First we did personal websites and through this we started to find client work. From client work and web design building, we got more and more into developing websites and then to WordPress finally.
How did you transition from client work into themes?
E: It was a natural development. We started blogging while doing client freelancing web design, illustration and graphic design work, some work. We started the blog in German in the summer of 2009, and after doing a year or two of only blog posts, we developed this community around web design and WordPress in Germany because we did all of the blog posts in German.
From there we created our first free theme. It was just a little theme we wanted to use for one of our own projects. We thought, since we’ve done this theme for ourselves, why not release it?
Then we did the second free theme. We wanted to do a redesign for our Elmastudio blog, and decided to release this theme too. This theme was Yoko. It got a lot of attention from the WordPress community in Germany first, and then an owner of Smashing Magazine who is from Germany too, he found our theme and asked “Do you want to release it on Smashing Magazine as well?” With this, it really got a lot of attention internationally. We thought, “Cool, we can do WordPress themes”. Then we started out doing our own premium WordPress theme and it just developed from that. It was a natural development.
Your site was originally all in German. When did you decide to add an English section?
E: In the beginning we did some translations with Google Translate but this got really messy. We always knew it was a lot of work to translate the whole website but eventually when we got more attention on wordpress.org from our free themes and from Smashing Magazine, we thought, “Okay, we really need to do this.” Since then we also started to do the blog posts in both languages. It was a lot of work to do it at the beginning, but now we’re really happy we did it. I think it was at the end of 2012 with the re-design.
What sort of tools and plug-ins do you use on your site?
E: It’s not that awfully complicated of a set up for our shop. We use WooCommerce and for the translation we use the WPML plug-in. We use VaultPress for security back ups and everything- I think this is the most important part. We use Jetpack as well. That’s all of the most important plug-ins we have.
What do you think the hardest parts of running a theme business are?
E: That’s an interesting question. First, we love it. It’s a lot of fun. We love what we do. We feel so blessed that we can do this job and work together. We don’t think it’s really hard.
For every freelancer, it’s a little a bit hard- you have to motivate yourself and you have to do some work routine. You have to find a work routine yourself and be consistent. Over the long run, if you want to do your work or job for a couple years, you have to think a little bit ahead. I think this is what we’ve learned over the last years, that consistency is most important. You have to be there for your customers and for your people.
M: Also, consistency in getting the inspiration, to be inspired by things. You have to motivate yourself to roll on and try to be an inspiration for others. Consistency is the thing.
How do you find that inspiration?
M: All of the stuff that’s happening in your life and around you. It could be food. Print magazines are great inspirations for typography, the detail stuff. But the main designs, the layout, the conception- it comes from weird stuff actually.
E: The idea comes like a natural project. Maybe we want to do something for ourselves, or have a friend who needs a portfolio. We think, “What would this person want from a WordPress theme?” And we do it with this specific person in mind. We do a theme we think this person would really love to use. This is how we get theme ideas. And from everyday life comes inspiration.
We hope now we have a little bit wider range of themes so everyone can pick what they need. Also, for the upcoming year, we want to do some more niche themes. We have a lot of blog only themes. In the recent months, we have really loved the idea of doing a portfolio and more specific types of themes that it’s fun to have too.
I’m looking at Onigiri…. am I pronouncing that right?
E: We always pick these funny names. It’s a Japanese word for rice ball or rice cake. It’s like a Japanese sandwich.
M: They look amazing actually. They are in this triangle shape with beveled edges. It’s a cool shape.
E: If you look on YouTube and type it in you can see how people make it. It’s really traditional. It’s really beautiful how they prepare the food and everything. And, we love the rice. They have vegan versions so we have always something to eat on the way.
Onigiri is really interesting. It’s not like any other theme I’ve seen. The grid is very unusual. You have a lot of floating elements with that. I haven’t even seen other things on the web that are like this necessarily. Do customers like those unusual designs? Or do you have a certain customer base that really likes that type of theme, do you think?
E: I think especially with the portfolio themes, we like to do it very minimal and very different. Coming from this design background ourselves and having a lot of friends that have studied design or work as designers or artists. We also think it shouldn’t look like a theme, it should look like a minimal website you created yourself. Especially with the portfolio subject, we want to do something very different something more clean and more minimal and than a normal WordPress theme that might have all the widgets and a lot of features.
Mostly, we do websites or themes just like we’d want to use them for ourselves. We cannot use every theme ourselves but we would love to use a theme if we had a portfolio, so this is how we approach the design. That’s the most fun and the most inspirational for us.
M: I think it’s our design philosophy to do self-design. One day I saw a talk by Jared Spool, a UX guru, and he was talked a lot about self-design. I thought, in some ways, that feels natural because the best person you understand is probably yourself. If you do design how you would like then there is probably a lot of other people who would like it. Probably, it’s harder to think, “What would other people like?” compared with, “what would I like?” It’s not an egocentric design, more like a solution…
E: From our experience, we just have the most fun and we can do the best job we can if we do design we just love and we would use. It’s okay, not everyone loves our style of design. I think it’s totally okay because there are so many solutions to doing a WordPress design. That’s the beauty of WordPress – that everyone can choose what they love.
I design in the same way too… I try and build something that I think I’ll like and I would use and other people could use. But I can also be fiercely critical of my own work. I’m wondering, since you work as a pair, is that helpful to bounce these design ideas of each other? Or is it more difficult? I’m curious about that process…
M: It is sometimes stressful. But it is fun… we can’t compare. We only know that way, it has to work.
E: We’ve got better over the last years in saying what we like then tweaking the design. We developed a routine for how we could work together most efficiently without getting into arguments and getting the best results out. Always with the design, it’s very cool if you have someone to talk to and someone who you can show your work. It’s very healthy for the design, even if it’s stressful at times.
M: Sometimes I think, “I don’t like what this person said,” but after a while you think, “Actually, he or she was probably right.” So if you come to the point and don’t get angry, it is very beneficial for the design process.
Are you mostly based in Stuttgart when you’re working?
E: We are based in Stuttgart and we have a home office there. But we love to travel. From when we met, we started to travel every summer break. It’s just who we are. We are so lucky that, with our work, we can still travel, not only on in summer holidays, but we do as much as we can. Last year, we also went to Japan. We stayed here during the huge WordCamp in Tokyo.
People are so friendly everywhere when we’re traveling. Especially the WordPress community, it’s so beautiful. Even if you only chat on twitter or via email it’s so beautiful that people from all over the world come together and work together and are working on the same project.
When you’re putting together your themes, it sounds like you’re both designing them. Are you both doing the development work too? How do you separate those tasks?
E: We do both a little together, but mostly it’s Manuel doing the design work and I do the development. With the design work, we work together on what works for the development.
M: It’s an organic process.
E: It’s a little bit hard to explain because I think it’s unique how we work together. It developed over the last few themes. In the beginning, it was a bit chaotic, but we’ve found our way- how we approach one theme and how we design and develop it. We also start developing very early. Manuel is sketching the first theme idea and I start with developing very early to see what works in the browser. We always compare the developing with the design and we add it step by step somehow.
M: When there is a first sketch of an idea, we try to bring it as early as possible into the browser, without the design details, to check if it works with the navigation and on mobile and stuff like that. And probably, it will not work, so we have to change and tweak the design again. It’s a process.
Do you find that your customers are asking for certain features that you’ve incorporated? Or are they pretty happy with just what you make?
E: I think it’s both ways. We always try to talk and listen as much as possible to the people on the blog and social media and in the forum. We love to hear from our users using our work. It’s so helpful. When they ask for features we always try to do what people like, and also what we want to do.
The feedback just makes your work better. If something isn’t working, or people really want a feature, we always try to make this happen. Sometimes it’s not easy and it doesn’t work with a theme. So, we try to do a new theme with this kind of feature. In general, we love to hear what people have to say. Because we do the designs for other people, it makes sense.
I’m curious about your pricing. I know a lot of theme companies have started to raise prices over the last couple of years. Your prices are very reasonable comparatively. I’m curious, how did you arrive at that pricing?
E: It’s actually a simple answer. When we started out making our first premium theme, we just loved that people used our work. We never thought that anyone would use our work in the beginning. It was so fascinating to us. We wanted to build themes full time, so we started to do a premium theme.
At the beginning, we thought, “We don’t want our theme to be more expensive than a paperback book.” I remember we read this book from Seth Godin, Linchpin, and at the time and it just inspired us so much. It was also the price, around 12 Euro. We thought, if this guy can do this amazing book for this price… It was so inspirational. We decided our themes shouldn’t cost more than a paperback book you can buy online.
One of the really cool things on your site is you have a showcase showing sites that your customers have built. I was just curious, do you have any favorites?
M: Actually, the showcase is the favorites. For us, it’s really an honor to see people using our themes. It’s one of the biggest inspirations for us to keep rolling- to see people using them and working together with us in that way. It’s really great.
E: We never thought they’d use a theme for different things, or they use it exactly how we would have used it. It’s so cool to see. This is the most rewarding thing of the whole process.
Anything I missed in the questions that you’d like to talk about?
E: I’m not sure. What we love most about WordPress is that it’s so inspirational. I don’t think you can say this enough. It’s just so cool that everyone shares their ideas and what they’ve learned. We started out just blogging about what we learned along the way. We shared our knowledge and other people do this too. I think this is so wonderful that we can all be part of this world around WordPress and around blogging and making websites. I think the whole idea is so beautiful and wonderful.
M: I’m very thankful for this to. To be part of this amazing global community. There are some language barriers, but the WordPress community is a global family. We see it that way. It’s wonderful.
Awesome, it’s been terrific talking with you. For people who are interested in your theme shop and finding out what you do, how can they find you?
E: Our website is elmastudio.de/en for English or you can just switch the German/English language button. You can find us on twitter too. We are very active there. My twitter name is ellenbauer. Manuel is manuelesposito. We are on Facebook and you’ll find us on all the social media sites. WordPress.com too. The latest themes are there too. This is how you can find us.