First, I think it’s important for me to understand the .org theme submission process. I have no idea if I’m really going to end up with a representative experience, but I’m going to try. I’m already confused about something though: am I definitely 100% allowed to submit a child theme? One of the requirements listed is “able to have child themes made from them” but grandchild themes are not a thing.
More than that, though, is that I have this theory that highly targeted themes are going to be a better entry point to WordPress than the current landscape of multipurpose/do-it-all themes. This particular experiment probably won’t generate much in the way of solid data on its own, I think making one myself is a reasonable place to start.
WordPress in its current state does a lot of assuming that you are going to stick to it no matter what, from themes with significant initial setup to having to understand that plugins add functionality (to say nothing of finding those plugins). This matches a lot of how WordPress’s usage has grown so far – through evangelism and hired implementation, both of which come with some amount of motivation to bend WordPress to do what’s needed even if it’s not clear it really can or should be. Meanwhile, if you’re just getting started with making a website and do a search for solutions, chances are pretty low you’re just going to choose WordPress from a pile that includes Squarespace and Wix, both of which do a significantly better job of showing people how exactly they can do what you want (verticals).
One of the things that’s influenced a lot of how I think about building websites without code is the time I spent teaching Digital Portfolio for Musicians (encompassing digital materials and presenting them via websites) after I graduated from the Eastman School of Music and took a job there as a web developer. This was from 2008-2011, which looking back, was the start of a big shift from “make X tool work for what I’m doing” to “search for X tool that does exactly what I want”. I’m sure there are plenty of takes as to what specifically you can attribute that change in mindset to (mobile apps, maybe), but whatever it is, it makes sense. Technology is no longer a novel tool that we bend ourselves to accommodate; it’s now an assumed layer that should just work for you.
If I’m trying to build a website for myself as a musician, I’m not going to think “okay let me browse through 800 themes filtered by some layout and technical feature criteria that I don’t really understand and see if one of these maybe looks like something I can make into a site I can barely visualize in the first place”. I’m going to search for something that clearly shows how I make a musician website, probably via a targeted demo and good marketing copy. And I’ll probably ask my friends, most of whom are probably going to recommend whatever tool is currently popular in our niche (Squarespace today; once upon a time Dynamod).
Now, searching for a WordPress theme specifically is already a dialed-in audience, so again, who knows what kind of data I’ll really get right now. But over time, perhaps the existence of more targeted themes, with good descriptions and demos (starter content!) that lead into a far less time-consuming customization process (as opposed to a complete building process) will help more people to understand that WordPress can work for them.