SE is giving us pretty limited options for how the site is going to look going forward. Our most popular customization request, judging either from Carlo Beenakker's original suggestion or the discussion here, doesn't look likely to happen at least any time soon, because (according to Catija's comments at the first link above), SE wants those screen elements to be the same across the network.

As an example of a SE site that looks pretty good in the new theme, we've been pointed toward Worldbuilding. From what I can figure, the main difference lies in choosing a good background -- for example, look at the graph paper background on MSE. Right now we have this oppressive gray color which looks like a placeholder for something better.

So does anybody have suggestions on what kind of background might be good? Just as importantly -- does anybody have strong feelings about backgounds that would be bad? I think a poorly-chosen background could easily make the feel of the site even worse than it is now.

The one parameter, I gather, is:

  • It can't be too dark. SE wants the left nav ("Home", "Questions", "Tags", "Users", "Unanswered" on the left part of the screen) to be visible on top of it.

A few warnings:

  • MSE already has a graph paper background, so we probably don't want that.

  • Mathematica stack exchange already has some kind of Penrose tiling in their header. So we probably don't want that either.

And one last point:

  • Another thing to notice from Mathematica stack exchange -- a plain white background might not be a terrible thing. We don't have to go crazy.

A part from Responsive Design Themes - What can sites customize and how can they get changes implemented? which seems most relevant to the background:

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.

The linked examples are: Travel, RPG, Code Review, Puzzling.

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    $\begingroup$ concerning the desire to differentiate MO from MSE: I noticed that originally the MathOverflow banner said "Welcome to MathOverflow: A place for mathematicians to ask and answer questions" (see for example this 2011 posting) --- we might re-introduce this text at the top, and then just take some non-MO-specific background color. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ More recently, if you visit the site without being logged in, there is a banner saying "MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians. Join them; it only takes a minute: ". For example, here's a screenshot from the wayback machine pulled at random. I tried to reproduce this on my browser, but couldn't get it. However, a recent wayback machine capture appears to have this message, so probably it's cookie-related. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ Please NO to plain white. There is so much white on the front page already that I am completely dazzled when I look at it.... A light green, for instance, would be fine with me. But any colour other than white / grey would work for me... $\endgroup$
    – Nick Gill
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 9:35

3 Answers 3


Above all it should be noticeable. The MSE grid paper background is nice but done in blueish white on grayish white and nearly invisible even for people with normal color sight (checked 6 months ago) like myself. As a matter of fact, I have never suspected it was there until I read about it in some meta thread. Then I strained my eyes and voila, I noticed thin lines of the big cells. It took me some more effort to notice the small cell lines, but now I see it (mainly because I expect to see it, not because it is there). If we do something like that, I would say we'd better not bother at all.

Second, it should be MO-specific in the sense that if you show somebody just the background and ask him whether he thinks it is MO, MSE, Physics, etc., he should not hesitate a second to answer that it is MO.

Third, it should be non-obtrusive. It shouldn't attract the eye more than main fields so once you register it, it should be easy to ignore it for the rest of the reading.

I guess anything that passes these 3 requirements (plus doesn't violate general common sense and taste too much) would be fine. Unfortunately, I cannot offer a good design myself at the moment, but I guess we have plenty of people here whose artistic abilities are not as dismal as mine :-).

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for this. :) So, would a solid color like what Martin suggested fill these needs, assuming it was a color not used elsewhere? I could use a bit more clarity on your second point. Do you mean that it should be something that is unique to MO - like a specific color or pattern - or something that is actually math-related, like an image or some equations? $\endgroup$
    – Catija
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 6:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Catija I would prefer it to be not only unique to MO, but also instantly recognizable as MO, if possible. One possibility would be just to have letters MO in slightly lighter color over the background in some regular or irregular pattern, but, probably, there are some other options that might allow one to tell immediately that it is not MSE, say, even if they are here for the first time. Pure solid color will hardly do this job. $\endgroup$
    – fedja
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ I think I disagree about the inadequacy of solid color. It seems to me that as long as the look is sufficiently different from other sites, it doesn't need to explicitly tell you that it's MO -- old users will quickly pick up on the difference and subconsciously know what site they're on, while for new users, it wouldn't mean much to them to write "MO" everywhere since they won't even know what that means. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ @TimCampion & fedja It's possible that we could do something like the English Language Learners sidebar... it's a solid color with a pattern that peters out as you move down the page. $\endgroup$
    – Catija
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 4:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Catija I see no reason why not :-) Anyway, I just voiced my opinion. If the majority prefers something else or thinks otherwise, that's fine with me ;-) $\endgroup$
    – fedja
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 19:42

The post mentions that "Sidebars/backgrounds can have a light-colored solid." The site Travel Stack Exchange is cited as an example. A possible advantage of having some color in the sidebar (and perhaps also in other places) would be that the site would become more easily distinguishable from other sites that use different (or none) color in the sidebar.

I have tried at least what the sidebar would look like with some colors. Take this mainly as a post asking users whether something similar would be acceptable - the final choice would be done by Stack Exchange design team, this is just to get some feeling what possibilities look reasonable for the MathOverflow community.

So I am mainly asking whether having colored background might be a good option - and I'll leave the exact choice of colors and other implementation details for people more knowledgeable about this (as recommended elsewhere). In any case, the color should probably be not too strong. And also it would probably be good to use colors close to the ones used in MathOverflow logo or elsewhere on the site, so that there is not a stylistic clash.

MathOveflow logo

I have tried a few colors from the ones listed in the Stacks Project - Colors; from what I understood it might be better to choose one of those. (And the link gives you also previews for other colors if you are thinking about possible alternatives.)

Here you can see how the left sidebar would look like after changing background-color to #FDE3CE (@orange-050) and #FFF8DC (@yellow-100). The latter seems to be rather close to the color currently used in the community bulletin and also the color used to distinguish questions in watched (favorite) tags. (I hope I haven't made some mistake when testing and that the colors shown below are indeed what I claim them to be.)



I did not want to overfill this page with screenshots. A few more can be found in the MathOverflow chat room. Specifically the ones with solid color are the ones starting from this message.)

EDIT: I should probably mention that I did include screenshots only showing left navbar and not the header on purpose. Deciding whether or not header should have solid background and choosing the background color or background image for header which goes well together with the colors in the logo and the color in the left navbar can probably considered a separate design choice.

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    $\begingroup$ I really like the Orange-100 that you posted in the chat. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ Here is a link to the chat message and screenshot the previous comment is referring to. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ I think this idea is fantastic. I'm not sure either of these colors is the right one, I'd want one of the actual colors in the logo, but anything orange-y (including your first suggestion) I'd be content with. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ From what limited experience I have designing websites, I would pick a colour scheme that's consistent and does not draw too much attention. Thus, the best fit would be an off white or a subtle orange (because of the MO logo). Small changes are more noticeable with light colours than dark ones, so already orange-050 seems a bit much to me. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 20:53

What makes Worldbuilding so nice is that there's an image in the bottom left which doesn't disappear when you scroll. I wish the MO logo in the top left would just stay as you scroll, but without that some kind of new vertically oriented logo in the bottom left would be great.


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