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On my favourite site, a new design was announced. It contained a lot of links to posts which in turn contain a lot of links, answers, timelines, and references to stuff like Teams which is not relevant to me. So, I am pretty overwhelmed and confused. I am therefore asking for a summary of what I need to know for understanding, evaluating, and criticising the design for proposed for my site, specifically:

  • What major changes can I expect when switching to the new theme?

  • What is the rationale behind the change as a whole as well as the major or controversial changes? What is this responsive design everybody is talking about?

  • What are the restrictions of the new unified theme?

  • What parts are still customisable for each site?

  • What are the most common suggestions and what is their current state (rejected, in progress)? I am asking this, so I can avoid redundant worries and criticism.

This is intended as a FAQ to be posted as a reference in the individual design announcements instead of the convoluted general announcements, requests for comments, and similar. It should be mainly self-contained and only contain links for further reading and reference. Please make answering this a collaborative effort. Also feel free to improve the question.

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    @Sonic Non-US spellings should be respected. – curiousdannii Sep 4 '18 at 5:46
  • @curiousdannii This is tagged as a proposed FAQ; those are standardized to American spellings. Other questions are fine. – Sonic the Bracketed Hedgehog Sep 4 '18 at 5:47
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    @SonictheInclusiveHedgehog Source? – curiousdannii Sep 4 '18 at 5:49
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What major changes can I expect when switching to the new theme?

The main site navigation links move from the top to a sidebar on the left. On narrower monitors, this tends to push the right sidebar off the edge of the viewport, unless the left sidebar is collapsed in preferences.

On sites that previously had extensive theming, the new theme brings them down to the subset of visual features common to all sites.

What is the rationale behind the change as a whole as well as the major or controversial changes? What is this responsive design everybody is talking about?

The basic purpose is threefold: to allow more stuff to be put into navigation, to make pages usable on a wider variety of screens, and to reduce ongoing design costs of individual site themes.

"Responsive" design is an approach that relies on relatively flexible layouts and smoothly resizing/shuffling the major elements in the layout in order to handle a range of different screen widths without needing to be zoomed or scrolled. Ideally, the same website can be used efficiently on a small phone screen and a 4k monitor.

What are the restrictions of the new unified theme?

Site themes can pick which of several font chains to use, but can't pick fonts not on the lists. Voting arrows, blockquotes, and tags are not customizable. MathJax is not responsive. The size and location of the header logo can't be changed.

What parts are still customisable for each site?

Background images, favicons, site header logos, link color, accent color, badge icons.

  • The layout of the theme is unnegotiable. The name of the website (site header logos) will always be pushed to the left. The logo cannot increase in size. Every link is underlined. – Mari-Lou A Sep 4 '18 at 8:08
  • @Mari-LouA: You should add those into the "restrictions" section. – Nathan Tuggy Sep 4 '18 at 8:09
  • I'm not so sure it's confirmed that sites won't be able to pick/suggest new fonts. Georgia is a poor choice for sites with Greek for example. – curiousdannii Sep 4 '18 at 8:12
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    @curiousdannii: I reread the linked post several times and it sure looks to me as though they're going to do almost exactly what they originally said they would: get rid of font customization. There's an entire section of the post to state this (entitled "New plan is the old plan, mostly"). Most of the rest of the post is listing the impact the new/old plan will have on various classes of sites when they lose their customizations. – Nathan Tuggy Sep 4 '18 at 8:34
  • @Mari-LouA Link underlining has nothing to do with the new theme. It's network wide right now. – Catija Sep 4 '18 at 12:03
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    @Catija links weren't underlined until the new themed sites were running. So it has something to do with it. On some sites the links were very visible (strong color contrasts) now they look unsightly, and on EL&U posts, where answers can contain dozens of links, the underlining looks heavy and "busy". Can we ask to disable this feature on EL&U? – Mari-Lou A Sep 4 '18 at 12:19
  • @curiousdannii It’s because Georgia is the only commonly used font that has text figures in the basic set. You need is a modern font like Google’s EB Garamond w/Latin+Greek+Cyrillic+IPA, and where you can select old-style figures via the onum font feature, or bette, the font-variant-numeric that gets you both proportional-nums and also oldstyle-nums. Only tabular figures should be non-proportional. And only ALL CAPS should have lining figures, since those are uppercase digits and text figures are lowercase digits. People have forgotten that typesetting is not like a typewriter. – tchrist Sep 5 '18 at 3:54
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    @curiousdannii Right now anything in IPA is messed up because it picks simple characters from Georgia and then the rest from Times New Roman, including combining characters. This doesn't work because of the different x-heights, which leaves it very hard to read. A unified modern serif that covers all the bases here and gives us text figures as well is the way to go. The Google font I mentioned fits that bill but I guess they only want to use fonts already on people computers 20 years ago, not modern stuff. – tchrist Sep 5 '18 at 4:01
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What is the rationale behind the change as a whole as well as the major or controversial changes? What is this responsive design everybody is talking about?

It is very difficult to put all the information in a nutshell, but I believe this one-page report on the Stack Overflow Blog, written by Donna Choi, is a good beginning. I have, of course, summarised the main points.

Updating Navigation for Stack Overflow, Enterprise, and Stack Exchange Sites

  • … “Channels”, a product which is now called “Teams.”

  • …this project required a change to Stack Overflow’s information architecture. We created several prototype navigations, narrowed to two, and tested with a group of users. This brought us to the following design direction, with content navigation on the left side:

  • Through that project, we learned that – despite many similar or overlapping use cases – there were major differences that were not easy to resolve. As a result, it took us longer than expected to ship navigation to network sites, and we still haven’t updated Enterprise sites.

  • This means there’s been extended or unresolved fragmentation between Stack Overflow and our other sites. This is problematic because there’s a lot of overlap between people using Stack Overflow, Enterprise, and network sites. For example, about 70% of users joining network sites already have a Stack Overflow account.

  • … fragmentation means that shipping basic improvements to Enterprise and network sites becomes increasingly costly as differences accumulate over time…basic improvements like accessibility and responsiveness can benefit our 150+ communities and Enterprise clients as quickly as possible.

Below is a mock-up of a Stack Overflow user's page. This format will be identical for every single user, regardless if they are a member of SO or not, regardless if they are a computer engineer or not. But seeing as 70% users also have a Stack Overflow account, this will have a minimal impact on the majority.

enter image description here

  • The new information architecture also needed to scale reasonably over time. People should be able to expect a coherent experience as the site grows and changes.

For example

  1. A new product offering that is a separate entity from Stack Overflow
  2. A new feature on Stack Overflow

Further on

  • We know that Stack Overflow and our other sites could better support people with differing abilities. That’s why the new information architecture also needed to support our effort to make Stack Overflow accessible to all.
  • While all of these changes may not be ready on day one, we are taking this opportunity to improve access for all of our users.

What are the restrictions of the new unified theme?

  1. The layout of the theme is unnegotiable. (see mockup)
  2. The website's name (site header logo) will always be pushed to the left.
  3. The site logo cannot increase in size.
  4. The top bar is not considered to be part of the theme and therefor remains ubiquitous

We released the new top bar for all users across all communities. (Oct 9 '17)
Color - The top bar needs to be black on network sites, since that works best with the many themes. The SO top bar color was a branding decision and won't be changed to black.

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    The SO mock-up doesn't actually represent most SE sites as it's missing the site title bar. – curiousdannii Sep 4 '18 at 12:17
  • It is my understanding that the top bar (2015) and the changes effectuated to it earlier this year (icons, logos etc.) are all part of the changes that SE is proposing, the new "theme", the new layout, the new features. The black top bar cannot be modified in any way. Users cannot ask the developers to change its colour or can they? – Mari-Lou A Sep 4 '18 at 12:28
  • I meant the bar below the common black bar, which is absent at SO. – curiousdannii Sep 4 '18 at 12:35
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    @curiousdannii I was really addressing Catija's comment that she left in the edit message. “The top bar has been this way for over a year.” – Mari-Lou A Sep 4 '18 at 12:38
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    @Mari-LouA The question specifically says "What major changes can I expect when switching to the new theme?" The black top bar predates this change and has been the status quo for a long time. – Catija Sep 4 '18 at 13:25
  • @Catija the OP also asks “What parts are still customisable for each site?" The top bar is not customisable. Am I wrong? The new icons, which supported new functions/menus, were introduced in February this year. But seeing as this post has become CW it's no longer mine. – Mari-Lou A Sep 4 '18 at 13:30
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    You're not wrong but you need to phrase it more clearly. "Remains ubiquitous" is flowery and non-specific. Remember, you're writing for a FAQ. Be precise. – Catija Sep 4 '18 at 13:42
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    @Catija I stopped caring. Someone better than me can rewrite those four lines. – Mari-Lou A Sep 4 '18 at 13:43
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    Nothing wrong with flowery language ... I use it all the time. – rene Sep 5 '18 at 7:17

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