There have been a few questions here on MSE along with some on various child metas about how fixed/permanent the new site redesigns are. I'm posting a new question rather than answering so that we can have more real estate for dialogue (in answers) and because I was missing all of your pings from being on leave. So...
Are the current site designs permanent?
The answer to that is no. While the layout (where the elements are, the existence of the left navigation, etc) is fixed, we're happy to work with sites to get their specific designs/artwork more in line with what they want - within the layout restrictions - and understanding that it will take us a bit to get to the changes.
With the final transition of the entire network to Responsive Design on December 7th, we can start rolling out new features for the entire network - Custom Questions Lists and Saved Searches - and doing research into others, like updating user profiles to play nice with the new responsive layout, for example... but that doesn't mean we're done with the site designs - we have a bunch of graduated sites without designs and a backlog of very old beta sites that deserve some love and we're going to make time to improve designs on sites that already have them but are unhappy with how they turned out.
Awesome! So, what can we customize?
What we're able to customize on a site isn't set in stone for the next 6-8 years but what we can implement now has been somewhat limited so that we could complete the network-wide rollout before Winter Bash (yet another feature that's simplified by this update!). Who knows, if you come up with a great idea now, we may come back to it in a year (or four) and say "yes". Even some of the things that are possible now weren't possible when we started this process, so this list of customizations is changing as we go.
Our main goal is to limit the amount of customization one site has so that the sites all have generally the same LESS/CSS base, making it less likely that changes to the network will harm a small subset of sites (or a single site), causing us to spend more time fixing bugs than working on new projects - which we have a huge backlog of we'd love to introduce to you. But, what this means is that if one site has an element, other sites can pretty easily add it.
For example, the Photography site's Photo of the Week box could be added to Graphic Design to show off the users' designs if that site wanted to host such a weekly contest.
Oooh, cool! I know what the site design needs - how do I ask for it?
I've been happy to participate in and respond to discussions about site theming across the network with the users who are interested in helping their sites get designs that better reflect their communities and allow them to be different from the rest of the network - which is one of the biggest complaints we've gotten. I understand it and I share your concerns and we want to help fix that.
If your site's users feel like there are ways we can help re-establish some degree of now-missing identity to your site, create a meta post and start talking about it on your site. Consider focusing your meta post on a specific part of the design - the background, the header content, the logo, etc. - as this will help limit the discussion so that it's not "everything is awful".
A few sites are currently discussing improvements to the design within these limitations and we're happy to see the collaboration and to work with the sites when we have the time to do so. Here are some examples:
- Database Administrators felt their new header design wasn't quite right, so they asked for ideas from the community on what would be a better representation.
- Science Fiction & Fantasy lost their dark theme and are brainstorming other options for their sidebar area that work with black text.
- Worldbuilding (they had their discussion before we redesigned the site and it really helped us know what was important to them).
My site seems to be missing something, but I'm not sure what - can I get an idea of what might be possible?
Look around at the sites that are currently in testing or live for examples of what we can implement. To save you some clicking, here are a few examples of specific elements that can be customized and to what degree:
- Arqade (among other sites) - Artwork in footer.
- Photography - Photo of the Week box.
- Worldbuilding - their robot, Slartibotfast, was a major part of their site identity, so we were sure to incorporate it into the design by letting it float at the bottom of the page.
- Sidebars/backgrounds can have a light-colored solid, pattern/texture, or fade or even a combination. The left navigation text is black everywhere on the network and the navigation column does not have a separate color background, so the background must be light enough and without overly-distracting artwork so that it is of sufficient contrast and legible.
- Header banners are required (you can't drop them entirely a'la Stack Overflow) and the dimensions are fixed but the content of them can be pretty varied. Do keep in mind that on some smaller screen widths (think mobile) elements like images are either dropped to not clash with the site logo or will be obscured by it. This is why some of the busier images seem to stop half-way across the screen when viewing on a desktop.
- Fonts are set network-wide with either a serif or sans-serif stack. Which fonts are in the stack may change as we're realizing the current stack isn't optimal for all of our sites, both technically and for design reasons.
- Colors can be customized to a degree (and many have been adjusted through this process). This includes buttons, OP indicator boxes, link colors (visited/unvisited), voting arrow colors, tag colors (background & text), question titles (in the questions list, not on question pages).
I'm sure I've left out some of the elements here. Feel welcome to use this post to point out anything I may have missed or to ask questions about what might be possible. I'll talk to the design team and get you answers.
Thanks so much! I know what I need now!
You're welcome! One other thing, when you start these discussions on your child meta sites, be sure to use the design tag so that we can find and track them easily.
Thanks so much for your time and effort - and your patience. We know this process has been hard and tiring and a lot of y'all have been disappointed (understatement of 2018?) with it.