Learning Gutenberg: A Primer with create-guten-block

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Welcome back! We’ve just taken a look at what Gutenberg is and how it operates from the admin side. Gutenberg is certainly going to have a massive impact on the WordPress world. If you are just arriving here and have no idea what we’re talking about, I recommend at least skimming Part 1 to make sure you have the appropriate background.

Let’s create a custom block with a bit of help from a wonderful tool called create-guten-block. Onward!

Article Series:

  1. Series Introduction
  2. What is Gutenberg, Anyway?
  3. A Primer with create-guten-block (This Post)
  4. Modern JavaScript Syntax (Coming Soon!)
  5. React 101 (Coming Soon!)
  6. Setting up a Custom webpack (Coming Soon!)
  7. A Custom “Card” Block (Coming Soon!)

Blocks live in plugins

To create a Gutenberg block, you create a WordPress plugin. Anything that affects *content*, like a Gutenberg block certain will, needs to be a plugin so that it remains active even as you change themes. Something that is very theme-specific or just affects how your site looks can be part of the theme files or functions.php file in your theme. Read more about this distinction in our article about WordPress Functionality Plugins.

That said, the blocks in themes issue is a hot topic. The WordPress Theme Review Team is discussing whether or not to allow blocks in themes at all as part of themes. A post, “Getting Ready for Gutenberg”, on the Theme Review Team’s Make page posed this question, and was met with strong opinions from both sides. The general consensus, however, is that blocks are plugin territory.

WordPress.org is comprised of various teams, each with their own homepage at make.wordpress.org/team-name, channel in the WordPress Slack, and a weekly meeting. If you are interested in getting involved in WordPress or curious about how it operates, I highly recommend browsing through a list of the teams here, joining a Slack channel, and popping into a weekly meeting to see how it all happens.

In the far future, it’s possible that themes will consist of *just a stylesheet*, while all custom functionality and content structure come from blocks in plugins. I’m paraphrasing the words of Tammie Lister, Gutenberg’s design lead, on this episode of Shoptalk Show. Very much worth a listen!

Taking a setup shortcut… for now

What’s kept me from diving head first into modern JavaScript is the dang configuration. The transpiling, the bundling, the code splitting, the tree shaking… yeesh, I’m busy! I love learning new things, but there’s a limit to my patience and, apparently, configuring a build process for a small test project is my limit.

It’s this sentiment that led to the development of a tool called create-react-app, zero-configuration build setup for, you guessed it, creating React apps. It’s brilliant. Assuming you have a functioning node and npm installation, you can run a single command and you have a project ready for you to start coding in React. The transpiling, bundling, and tree shaking is set up for you.

But wait… can we use create-react-app for Gutenberg blocks? No, but the aforementioned create-guten-block, developed and beautifully documented by Ahmad Awais, does pretty much the same thing for us! That’s what we’ll be using for our block.

create-guten-block is not the only block generating tool at our disposal! You can scaffold a block using WP-CLI, but I have chosen not to because the default setup is for ES5 (for now) and does not give us what we need for our journey into modern JavaScript. That being said, I found it helpful to dig through the ES5 implementation of a block as a way to reinforce the core concepts, so maybe give it a go after you finish here!

Yes, this is a shortcut. We are choosing to avoid understanding the core concepts of a technology by using a tool. We’ll have to learn these concepts someday. But for now, I’m totally fine bypassing this configuration step. My philosophy about using tools such as this: use them, but do so with the understanding that it *probably* won’t save you time or effort in the long run.

It’s worth noting that, like create-react-app, create-guten-block allows you to npm eject your configuration. This means exposing all of the settings the tool has created for us and making them available for customization. Note, however, that this is irreversible; if you eject and then make a mistake, you’re on your own to fix it! Like I said, you’ll have to learn it someday 🙂

Step 1: Install create-guten-block

We will first install create-guten-block globally, like so:

npm install -g create-guten-block

In theory this should work no problem, but that’s not realistic. create-guten-block requires a minimum of Node version 8 and npm 5.3, so if you haven’t updated either of them for a while, that’s one possible error (and here’s one possible solution).

I always start by pasting my console error into a search engine and removing line numbers and file names to keep my query general. In the interest of improving this tutorial, however, I am curious to hear about what went wrong so feel free to post your issue in the comments as well.

Step 2: Create that guten-block

It’s time! Let’s do it! You know what? I’m not going to tell you how because Ahmad’s documentation is so good and there’s no sense in replicating it.

Go here and follow Ahmad’s instructions to create that guten-block in your command line.

You should see something like this when running the command, create-guten-block test, where “test” is the name of my block.

Step 3: Activate the plugin

Go to your Plugins screen, activate your new block plugin — it should be called something like test-block — CGB Gutenberg Block Plugin where “test-block” is what you named your block when creating it.

Step 4: That’s it! Let’s use our custom block!

So easy! Now, go to the editor view of a post or page, locate your block, and insert it.

Although I named my block “test”, searching “test” in the block selector yielded the wrong result as you can see in the gif above. The default name of the block is instead “CGB Block” — we will change this very soon!

Text editor setup (optional)

I’ve found it very helpful to have a specific text editor setup for developing blocks. I use Visual Studio Code for my text editor, but I’m sure you can figure out something similar with whatever editor is your preference.

Here are the key ingredients:

  1. Easy access to the command line to keep an eye on build errors (there will be build errors)
  2. A copy of the Gutenberg source from GitHub for code reference (download or clone it here)
  3. Easy access to both your plugin’s directory and Gutenberg’s source directory from #2
​​My VS Code setup for Gutenberg development. Notice the integrated terminal and multiple source directories on the right.

In VS Code, I accomplish this using the following features:

  1. The integrated terminal — open with Command + ~ on Mac, or from the menu bar with View > Integrated Terminal
  2. A Workspace containing folders for both your plugin and Gutenberg’s source from GitHub. You can doing this by opening your plugin directory in VS Code, then choosing File > Add Folder to Workspace and selecting the Gutenberg directory you downloaded from the GitHub repo. You can then save the Workspace for easy access with File > Save Workspace As (I called mine “Blocks” in the image above).

This part is optional, and you don’t have to use VS Code. The important thing is having ready access to the command line, your plugin’s source, and the Gutenberg plugin’s source for reference. You can totally reference the source on GitHub if you like, but I enjoy having the files in the same environment for side-by-side comparison and easy searching with Find In Folder.

We are using Gutenberg from the plugin repository for the actual functionality, but that instance only includes the compiled files. We want to reference the source files, so we need to use the codebase directly from GitHub. If you’d like to access updates before they are released in the plugin, you can clone the repository. It would be totally possible to build and work from the GitHub version, but for simplicity’s sake, we are using the plugin version in this tutorial.

Once you are ready to go, make sure you are cd’d into your block’s plugin folder and run npm start. You should see a satisfying message indicating the process has started:

After running npm start in our plugin folder, we are officially “Watching for changes…” (and we didn’t have to touch any config! Cheaters…)

I’m using Wes Bos’s theme for Cobalt 2 in VS Code as well as the same theme for ZSH in my Terminal and iTerm. This makes absolutely no difference in how the technology works, but it does make a difference, on a personal level, to customize your workspace and make it feel like your own (or Wes Bos’, in my case).

What’s what

Now that we are in code mode, let’s take a look at the files we’ll be working with. I’ll borrow this from the create-guten-block Readme for reference:

└── test-block
├── plugin.php
├── package.json
├── README.md
|
├── dist
| ├── blocks.build.js
| ├── blocks.editor.build.css
| └── blocks.style.build.css
|
└── src
├── block
| ├── block.js
| ├── editor.scss
| └── style.scss
|
├── blocks.js
├── common.scss
└── init.php

For the purposes of this tutorial, we are only concerned with what is inside the src directory. We will not touch anything in dist (those are compiled files), plugin.php, or any stragglers such as package.json, package-lock.json, or.eslintignore.

plugin.php officially alerts WordPress of our plugin’s existence. It requires src/init.php, which is where we’ll write any PHP we need for our block(s). In general, we won’t write anything in plugin.php — out of the box, the only code it contains are the comments to register our plugin.

Let’s drill into src:

└── src
├── block
| ├── block.js
| ├── editor.scss
| └── style.scss
|
├── blocks.js
├── common.scss
└── init.php

The block directory contains files for single, individual block. This includes:

  • block/block.js — All the JavaScript for the individual block.
  • block/editor.scss — Sass partial for styles specific to the editor view,
  • block/style.scss — Sass partial for styles specific to the front-end view, i.e. what you see when you view your page/post.

Now, open up src/blocks.js:

I think of src/blocks.js as a table of contents for blocks, similar to the role of an index.scss or main.scss in a Sass project structure. If we wanted to include two blocks in our plugin — let’s say this was a suite of custom blocks — we could, in theory, duplicate the block directory, rename it, and add something like this to src/blocks.js:

import ‘new-block/block.js’;>

Then, whatever create-guten-block has prepared for us behind the scenes would know to include our new block’s block.js in the main script file compiled into dist (now is a good time to take a peek into dist, if you haven’t already).

Not too bad so far, right? We still haven’t really gotten to any JavaScript…

A challenge!

Okay, now it’s time for a challenge! Open up src/block/block.js and take a couple of minutes to read through the author, Ahmad’s, excellent comments.

Then, see if you can figure out how to*:

  1. Change the name of your block, that is, the one that shows in the block selector
  2. Change the icon of your block (❤ Dashicons)
  3. Change the text that displays on the front end i.e. when you “View Post”
  4. Change the text that displays on the back end i.e. editor view
  5. Give the front end view a border radius of 30px
  6. Give the editor view a gradient background
  7. Make the text in first paragraph tag editable

* You should be able to work through (almost!) all of these in about 10 minutes. 😉

How was that?

What problems did you run into? Did you get tired of reloading the editor? Did you see the “This block appears to have been modified externally” message more often than you’d like? I sure did, but such is life with new technology — there’s a lot to be desired in the developer experience, but this isn’t a priority for the team at present and will come in the later stages of Gutenberg’s planned development.

Most importantly, did you get #7?

If you did, then you should be writing this tutorial! That one was a gotcha. I hope you felt at least a little confused and curious because that’s how we learn! We’ll get to that in Part 3.

Now that we have our bearings, let’s dig deeper into this notion of a block.

Skeleton of a block

Here is block.js with the comments stripped out — what we might call the skeleton of a static block:

// Stripped down version of src/block/block.js

// PART 1: Import dependencies
import ‘./style.scss’;
import ‘./editor.scss’;

// PART 2: Setup references to external functions
const { __ } = wp.i18n;
const { registerBlockType } = wp.blocks;

// PART 3: Register the block!
registerBlockType( ‘cgb/block-test’, {

// Part 3.1: Block settings
title: __( ‘test – CGB Block’ ),
icon: ‘shield’,
category: ‘common’,
keywords: [
__( ‘test — CGB Block’ ),
__( ‘CGB Example’ ),
__( ‘create-guten-block’ ),
],

// PART 3.2: Markup in editor
edit: function( props ) {
return (
<div>You’ll see this in the editor</div>
);
},

// PART 3.3: Markup saved to database
save: function( props ) {
return (
<div>This is saved to the database and returned with the_content();</div>
);
},
} );

Let’s do a side-by-side comparison with another static block, the “Separator” block from the default blocks included in Gutenberg. That file is is located in gutenberg/blocks/library/separator/index.js. If you have the folder open in either VS Code or Sublime, you can use the shortcut Command + Option + 2 on a Mac, or View > Split Editor to get the files side-by-side.

If you are following the text editor setup outlined previously, you should have something like this:

In this image, I copy/pasted the above stripped-down version of the block into an empty file to compare it without the comments. That’s optional!

What similarities do you notice? What differences? Open up a few of the other block directories inside gutenberg-master/library/, and take a peek into their files, comparing them to our block skeleton. Spend a few minutes reading the code and see if you can spot some patterns.

Here are a few patterns I noticed:

  1. There are curly braces in variable declarations and function arguments all over the place.
  2. Markup appears inside of return statements and often contains made-up tag names (you might recognize these as React components).
  3. All blocks seem to have a settings object containing entires for title, icon , category, etc. In the library blocks, they appear in an export const settings = … object, whereas in our plugin block, they are part of an argument for registerBlockType.
  4. All blocks have functions for edit and save as part of the settings object.
    • The syntax for the functions is slightly different than our block’s editand save functions:
      • edit( { className } ) { … } in separator/index.js
      • edit: function(props) { … } in our block.js
    • The library blocks appear to reference attributes and instead of props
  5. All blocks in the library contain an index.js. Some contain a block.js or other files that appear to contain a definition for a class extending a Component, e.g. class LatestPostsBlock extends Component { ….

What did you find? Feel free to contribute in the comments (but don’t stop reading here!).

A somewhat brief and relevant tangent

You probably noticed a statement importing @wordpress/i18n in every index.js and block.js file in the library, as well as a reference to wp.i18n in our plugin’s block.js. i18n stands for internationalization just like a11y stands for accessibility. Internationalization refers to the practice of developing your application to be easily translated to other languages. Since we want to prepare all static text in our blocks for translation, we assign wp.i18n to an alias of __for brevity, very much like we use the $ as an alias for good ‘ol jQuery. Read more about i18n for WordPress here

It’s also worth mentioning where that wp in wp.i18n is coming from and why it’s referenced as @wordpress/i18n in the Gutenberg source. wp is a global object — global meaning a variable available everywhere — containing all of WordPress’ publicly available JavaScript API methods. To demonstrate this, open up the console while on a page within the WordPress admin. Type wp and hit Enter. You should see something like this:

So, anytime we reference something within that wp object, all we are doing is accessing some functionality the WordPress JavaScript API provides us. @wordpress/i18n in the Gutenberg source is doing the same thing, but its importing the functions from an npm module rather than the global object. The functions in the wp global have been intentionally exposed to the public API by the WordPress core developers for use in themes and plugins.

If you are anything like my internal critic, you might be thinking, “Whatever, Lara, I don’t care about those details. Just tell me how to make a cool block with all the JavaScript already!” To which I would reply:

There are so many moving parts and new concepts in this environment that, I’ve found, the more code I take for granted, the more frustrating and time-consuming the process becomes. Approach every line of code with curiosity! If you don’t know what it does, do a Find in Folder in the Gutenberg source and see if you can find a trail to follow. For me, at least, this has been a much more enjoyable way to approach unfamiliar code than trying to build something haphazardly with copy and paste.

And with that, let’s wrap up Part 2!

Homework

What? Homework? Heck yes, there is homework! In Part 3, Andy 🍉 will dive into modern JavaScript goodies: React, JSX, and ES6 syntax. Although our series is written for those relatively new to JavaScript, it is helpful to learn the code and the concepts from many different angles and resources.

In an effort to introduce some concepts early on, here is an outline for some “Homework” prior to Part 3:

1. Spend some time (1-2 hours) on a React tutorial, or until you can explain in your own words:

  • The render method in React
  • JSX and that those made-up tag names map to JavaScript functions
  • Why React uses className instead of class

Recommended resources:

  • I really liked Learning React.js by Eve Porcello on Lynda.com. Lynda is a paid service, but you can watch for free with a library card in some cities (Los Angeles, for sure).
  • I also recommend this article series, Learning React with create-react-app by Brandon Richey
  • There are many, many options on Youtube!
  • I’ve been working my way through Brian Holt’s Complete Intro to React course on Frontend Masters (paid) and it’s very good.
  • I can’t go without mentioning Wes Bos’s React for Beginners course(paid) — I haven’t done it myself, but I’ve heard only great things, and he keeps it up to date!

I’d also recommend reading React State from the Ground Up here on CSS-Tricks, by Kingsley Silas, because it specifically dives into state in React. If you are brand new to React, this will be a lot to digest, but I think it’s worth getting it into your brain ASAP even if it doesn’t make sense quite yet.

2. Understand ES6 Destructuring and find a few examples of it in both the Gutenberg source and our plugin (that won’t be hard).

Recommended resources:

  • Blog post: A Dead Simple Intro to Destructuring Objects by Wes Bos
  • Video: Destructuring: What, Why and How on Fun Fun Function (these are A+ — watch this one about arrow functions while you’re at it)

3. Be comfortable with conditional or ternary operators.

In a sentence, ternary operators are shorthand for if…else statements. You’ll see these all over the Gutenberg source — find some simple examples that provide a fallback for a string’s value, as well as more robust uses like in blocks/library/paragraph/index.js, for example.

Recommended resources:

  • The MDN article is very good.
  • Also look into the not not operator — here is a Stack Overflow post about it.
  • Not to get too far down this rabbit hole, but if you are extra ambitious, do some research about type coercion in JavaScript. This article on FreeCodeCamp and this chapter from You Don’t Know JS by Kyle Simpson are solid starting points.

Okay! Thank you so much for reading, and see you in Part 3 for React, JSX, and other goodies.

Comments

Was there any part of this tutorial that didn’t make sense? Did you get lost anywhere? We’d love to keep making this better, so please let us know if any part of this was hard to follow or if any information is incorrect or out of date.

Thank you, again, and good luck!

Article Series:

  1. Series Introduction
  2. What is Gutenberg, Anyway?
  3. A Primer with create-guten-block (This Post)
  4. Modern JavaScript Syntax (Coming Soon!)
  5. React 101 (Coming Soon!)
  6. Setting up a Custom webpack (Coming Soon!)
  7. A Custom “Card” Block (Coming Soon!)