The New Stack Exchange Beta Theme

by Robert Cartaino

on March 6, 2012

I wanted to give you a quick look at the new Stack Exchange Beta theme. Yes, we are retiring the familiar "Sketchy" theme and rolling out a more-polished and finished design for the beta sites.

Raise the curtain, cue the trumpet fanfare…

Alas, poor Sketchy…

Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be rolling out the new Stack Exchange Beta theme to all the sites still in beta.

At first glance, the new beta theme looks like an unembellished version of any graduated site: Finished, but without any particular "beta" theme, per se. But that's sort of the point.

The crux of this change is that it's high time we stopped equating beta sites with being somehow unfinished. Sure, in their earliest days — when a community is defining their scope, building a FAQ, and finding its community leaders — a site might be considered unfinished (i.e. "under construction"). But once you are past those earliest wild-west days of figuring out why your site exists, a site should no longer be considered unfinished. Right out of the gate, the Stack Exchange engines gives you a world-class Q&A suite worth recommending on its own merits. If you've been holding back, go ahead; share, promote, and enjoy!

There was a time when we thought the average beta period would last, oh… about 90 days. The site would begin and build up enough content and users to reach critical mass. Reaching that tipping point of unstoppable growth defines "graduation." But getting to that point is hard work, and it usually take longer than 90 days… much longer. So we're left with this big gap between the time when a site is truly "under construction" to when it finally reaches graduation and gets its own custom design.

In the meantime, holding onto that unfinished-site meme has become actively harmful to community building, and an unproductive source of frustration among the sites; I'll get back to that later.

The idea of Sketchy started out as a whimsical nod to the early days of web development when just about every website started out with a definitive "under construction" theme.

In the mid-90's, webmasters often labeled their sites "under construction" as if to warn hapless Internet travelers that, perchance, something might be added to the site. A funny thing happened along the way: Even as those websites grew, the "pardon our dust" monikers remained as a warning of still more stuff to come — there's always new pages, new articles, and new features to add. Websites are never "done," and thus the perpetual under-construction themes endured.

           

So maybe we carried on that "under construction" meme a bit too long. Giving our beta sites a decidedly unfinished look seemed topical for a 90-day beta. But when a beta goes on, sometimes for hundreds of days, folks start to wonder if the site would ever be — quote, unquote — "finished."

A lot of folks like Sketchy. We like Sketchy, and he will be missed. But most communities don't want to look like they're still on the drawing board when they've been working tirelessly on their site for months or even years. Every Stack Exchange site will still get their own custom design when they graduate. This new Beta Theme doesn't change that. But this new design gives your beta site a nice, clean, finished look that you can work with and display proudly for as long as necessary.