Is It Wrong To Use A Svbtle Theme?

by @edent | # # # # | 19 comments | Read ~10,715 times.

For the last few months, I’ve been using the WordPress theme wp-svbtle. Even with my limited design sense, I think it looks rather spiffy.

Recently though, I’ve had a few people on HackerNews and Twitter criticising me of “ripping off” Svbtle and accusing me of trying to defraud readers into thinking I was part of the Svbtle network.

While nothing could be further from the truth, I think an explanation is in order.

For those who don’t know, is a “curated collection of great people who have things to say.” It was created by Dustin Curtis as a self-written blogging platform, which then morphed into a network of bloggers.

I had no idea of this when I first stumbled upon the Svbtle look and feel. As far as I was aware, the various blogs I were seeing were all just using a common theme – Svbtle.

So, I searched Alta Vista for “WordPress svbtle” and found GravityOnMars’ Svbtle theme along with several other clones.

As long time readers of my blog know, it’s gone through many reincarnations – but its most recent designs have leant towards simplicity. Svbtle almost makes a fetish out of simplicity. As a devotee of de Bono’s book on the subject I decided to use the theme.

It was only after I received some complaints, that I took a better look at the original Svbtle blog post. It says:

The goal is simple: when you see the Svbtle design, you should know that the content is guaranteed to be great. Network bloggers are encouraged to keep quality high at the expense of everything else.

Some people think that an invite only network for bloggers is somehow an evil conspiracy, I don’t. It’s perfectly acceptable to restrict access to you network – I don’t have a problem with that.

A lot of words have been spilled on the issue of whether it’s right to so blatantly copy another person’s design. See, for example:

I don’t count myself part of the Silicon Valley “scene” or blogging “set” – so I don’t feel that I’m well qualified to talk about the culture of building upon others’ work and how it relates to the hacker/blogger ethos.

There are three broad points I want to make.

  1. I am not trying to make it look like I’m part of the exclusive Svble group. For a starter, I had no idea that it existed as an entity when I first used this theme. Furthermore, I doubt most people – except the most obsessive blog followers – are aware of the Svbtle “brand”. I do accept, of course, that to those people it may look like I’m trying to pass myself off (despite the obvious differences and the large wp-svbtle banner on the page).
  2. Svbtle as a design builds on lots of other blog designs. There are hundreds of simple WordPress themes which strip out all extraneous fripperies for a distraction-free experience – nanos gigantum humeris insidentes.
  3. All that said, the Svbtle design is evidently recognisable and – while I would never want to be part of a club which would have me as a member – some people obviously think I’m up to something fishy.

So, here’s my quandary. Do I continue with wp-svbtle (to which I’ve provided some minor contributions) and ignore the critics – or should I take it on the chin and find another radically simple WordPress theme?

You thoughts, dear reader?

19 thoughts on “Is It Wrong To Use A Svbtle Theme?

  1. I suppose it’s kind of like saying “should I make my ecommerce site look exactly like Amazon”? It is an instantly recognisable brand for many people, and instills confidence for some, as well as having many other connotations.

    In your case, you have unwittingly styled your blog to match what is a very recognisable brand for some people.

    Personally, I would assue your blog was part of Svtble, and on finding out you aren’t my gut reaction is that you are trying to trick people into thinking you are.

    I would change the theme somewhat (red logo in a circle with white/red border, Svbtle logo in bottom right should absolutely go) or use a different theme.

  2. On a few occasions, I have read a blog post linked from Hacker News and carried the assumption that it was part of the Svbtle network, and that the author of the piece was, of course, part of the exclusive network.

    I then noticed the “WP-SVBTLE” in the bottom-left and immediately felt somewhat betrayed. Each time this happened, the articles were well-written and insightful (which I would expect, as they were on the Hacker News front page), but having to reconsider that it was not in fact written by a Svbtle member left me with mixed emotions.

    I might have otherwise enjoyed the pieces to the fullest extent.

  3. Reason says:

    I’ve never even heard of Svbtle. The complaints sound like a bunch of whining to me.

  4. Clifton says:

    No it’s not remotely like saying “should I make my ecommerce site look exactly like Amazon?” Sheesh, Mr. Bradshaw. Think over what you’re saying: Amazon has 30 million regular customers, its website is the #9 visited website on the Internet, and 61% of all American consumers polled knew of the Amazon Kindle. Do you really think you have 30 million readers, or that 3 people out of 5 know what Svbtle is?

    I think Svtble bloggers must be vastly overestimating the numbers of their readers. I’ve been reading a variety of blogs since years before they were called blogs, and I’ve never heard of this group or “network” before today.

    That said, ask yourself if you’d want people to accidentally associate you with a group as cliquish and territorial as this one seems to be.

  5. Moutaz Haq says:

    I’ve never heard of the Svbtle network and I think this design looks clean and nice. Nothing wrong with adapting a design from another blog for your own.

  6. Peter says:

    Clifton: So it’s ok to rip off a site when it’s small?

    Svbtle isn’t a “theme”, it’s just a site. You wouldn’t rip off the TechCrunch design if you were starting a tech blog, so why use a copy of another site? People made a ripoff theme from Svbtle because they were pissed off it’s an invite only network. Not being invited, however, is not an invitation to break in.

    If you want a similar design, don’t just mimic it, build on it and adapt the ideas to your purpose. As it is, Wp-Svbtle is a poor ripoff. Don’t use it.

  7. Arsenalist says:

    The most shocking part of this article is that you use Alta Vista.

    1. I totally agree, I was waiting for someone to say that :))

      on the subject, I was looking for some themes that put the focus on the content. A lot of the themes take this concept of content-first and either use big pictures (that most of the times don’t mean anything) or try to look like some Hemingway-wannabe blog. Svbtle and Medium are both examples of PLATFORMS that distinguish themselves with a clean design so they should be flattered that people appreciate them to such extent that they would code a WP theme.

      Nevertheless, in the case of Medium I think it’s ok. Medium allows me to publish to a wide network, but I’m more of an introvert-blogger so I try to stay away for shouting my opinion (which might be dumb) in a crowded plaza.

      Svbtl is a bit of a special case because it’s an invite-only space. First of all, I don’t care if people think I’m part of svbtl or not, I can just put a tag line saying that (“Kudos for Svbtl for being such a great inspiration, but I’m not part of it… yet”). Solved. But then you have that Kudos thing that is specific to their product, so I would change it to something else. Orman Clark did something with a heart, that would work ok (don’t have time to look for it again, it’s a clickable hearth somewhere on

      In my case I will use a medium-inspired theme, because I wanted that before seeing Medium, I just didn’t know how to call it.

  8. Scott Ogle says:

    The svbtle design is a brand that instills a lot of confidence (that’s why it’s invite only). I think that to use a knock-off theme is to try to instill some of that confidence when it’s not earned.

  9. Josh M says:

    I think you should find another design. The wp-svbtle design doesn’t feel like it’s building on the svbtle theme. It feels like it’s copying it as closely as possible – it’s difficult to distinguish between the two at first glance. Hence the very reason for your post.

    Personally, I don’t think the Svbtle design is that noteworthy. There are plenty of other clean, wordpress templates.

    Here’s a not too dissimilar one (free too)

    I found that from the following article:

  10. I think you should use the theme you like without caring about what anybody else says. Besides, since you didn’t know about it before you installed it you did nothing wrong.

    Regarding people who complain about it: they are walking contradictions. They rely so much on branding that even when the quality of the content is good they feel betrayed (see Drew’s comment above). Yet that brand is supposed to convey quality of content. When the get the quality without the brand they complain! As if no quality should be allowed to exist outside of the Svbtle network!

    I think that what Svbtle tries to do is noble and appealing, hence their apparent arrogance and the bevy of defenders we see. I also think that the creators were trying to solve a genuine problem: when anybody and everybody has a blog, a voice, and can say anything, you need a way to filter out the noise and separate the wheat from the chaff. I think the idea that to have a design that signifies quality is the first (and sometimes the only) solution a designer would think of.

    Yet, regardless of their high intentions, the reason so many duplicates, knock-offs, adaptations and inspirations exist is not because of the design (which is nice and well done, but not to the extent or speed with which it has proliferated) but because of their attitude and desire for exclusivity. The psychology is the same as behind Anonymous trolling, behind internet piracy, behind any teen rebel: oh you say I can’t do something, well then BAM I’m doing it.

    The tragedy is that the brand has overtaken the actual design so much that it is no longer allowed to exist by itself. When someone (such as you) comes across it, likes it, and wants to use it, purely for the aesthetic appreciation of the design, they are vilified and antagonized and blamed for trying to steal the brand. The brand is a monster which has consumed all that was once good in this design.

    Good ideas will be copied. If you don’t want something copied, don’t share it with anyone and take it to the grave. People will copy things if they can, especially when it is something as simple as a web page design, and especially if you ask them not to. This is how the web grows. This is the nature of things. All else is whining.

  11. PaulS says:

    Never heard of Svbtle. Heard of you. Stick with it.

  12. Not a huge fan of Svbtle (both the pretentious name and the community) but I, as a man with conscience and self-respect, would switch to a different theme that does not infringe on someone’s brand, especially when they are actively discouraging infringement. For Svbtle, this theme is as important and disctinctive as a logo is to a company so I can see why they strongly wish to keep it exclusive. At a bare minimum, I’d change this blog’s theme to have a different layout, typography and styling so it remains minimal and yet is not a Svbtle ripoff.

    1. To add to my comment above, here’s a design that’s Svbtle-inspired and yet easily manages to not look like a shameless ripoff –

  13. mdmrs says:

    it’s driving me nuts that most of you people think that it’s ok to rip of a website’s design. design is intellectual property and thus it is not even questionable that it is _not_ ok to copy (or better “pirate”) it without permission.


  14. John says:

    Came here from Hacker news. Haven’t heard of svbtle before now, but the whole thing seems creepy and untoward. I would change my theme just so that I wouldn’t be mistakenly associated with a cliquesh group of folks with territorial readers. yuuck. That’s some sour-ass kool-aid.

  15. Benjamin Paul says:

    “Good artists copy, great artists steal” – Steve Jobs (1996).

  16. “Good artists copy, great artists steal” – Picasso

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