Design and branding for the WordPress niche
This discussion keeps dodging having the one clear thread for specific discussion of WPSE design.
While the current Q only asks for "bug reports" and this isn't one... I don't have a better place, so here it goes. This is something I wanted to be read before new design was launched. Or even better — before it was started on. But better late than never.
While I am not designer by trade, I had been on same precise task of making site for WordPress niche. I had also been involved with development of newer part of WordPress.org site and heavy design challenges of that.
The kinds of “WordPress” design
There are many facets to what can be considered and/or taken as an inspiration for WordPress–like design. Just after brief pondering I could name this many.
WordPress.org site has been the web presence of WordPress project for a long time. It design stayed mostly same for a number of years, but had aged well and stayed mostly intact.
The biggest challenge with it is that its initial purpose grossly limits veering of into a new directions. It was envisioned as content site first and has enormous challenges moving in more specialized directions, such as new code reference.
WordPress.com site is like an evil ;) twin the web face of WordPress.com blogging network. Since the official split dot com had always been different enough to claim separation, yet similar enough to benefit from shared branding and fame.
I hadn't been following it closely, but I think in recent few years its characteristic design features had been blue color theme and the custom spin on WordPress admin side.
Of course there is the WordPress software core's admin interface itself. It tends to move at a faster design pace, but I would say the each look is relevant for 2-3 years maybe.
Then of course it is admin design and re-purposing it for front end site isn't commonly (if at all) done.
Since 2010 each year there is a new native theme shipping with WordPress core. The approach had been introduced to diversify a bit and for themes to be able to go in a more diverging directions, than just blogging.
Some are better accepted than others. With qualified tweaking they can make recognizable, but deeply individual sites.
Though the relatively short annual cycle prevents from any one of them getting associated with staple WordPress look.
And of course there is a vibrant and giant ecosystem of third party WordPress themes.
In my personal opinion despite the wide field and amount of niches, in general the WordPress software architecture itself and official repository requirements had contributed to what I call "WordPress look" that follows overly common of columns-sidebar(s) formula.
It is quite common from WordPress sites to dog food. Some of the most high profile meta-projects use off-the-shelf themes (again - usually with qualified tweaking).
The challenges of “WordPress” branding
In the branding space the diverse facets are much less of an issue. The WP niche had long suffered from a streak of Word*, *Press, and WordPress-something projects.
If you take a look at word cloud of plugin names from official repository, even there the complete redundancy of WP/WordPress is dominant.
In the space where connection with mainline WordPress project and its values is extremely important it can be a challenge to find a strong self-sufficient identity.
Some had never tried, some gave up, and some are coming to that after a years long spans of time.
How and why new design got it horribly wrong
In a nutshell my impression of the new design is that it is a WordPress com ripoff with a bad logo.
When doing such a meta design there is strong lure in using the native WP colors. I think this technique must be used carefully and that colors are not design. Myself I prefer to use them as accent colors and trivia of source — there for those who recognize the nod.
The new header's precisely follows the color of WordPress com, not even org. It is also minimal to a point of bland, especially in perspective of my experience with other sites of SE network.
new logo http://email@example.com?v=e6d1dc9106b5
This might be subjective, but from this logo I get a strong feel of those horror stories about sites that do extremely cheap and abundant logo designs.
Why is it in a circle? Why is it in this font? Why is is merely “WP” and how does this represent us at all?
The history of WPSE identity
The story of our branding and identity is somewhat a rocky one.
Beta and out
Our stack had been boilerplated as WordPress Answers in beta and this kept on into release. There has been concerns about similarities with other sites in WordPress space and generic nature of it, not serving our scope well.
Anyway the name stuck for a long time and led the site being more commonly known and referred to as WPSE after common "[name] S[tack]E[xchange]" formula. Note the solid WPSE spelling, not WP SE and not WP.SE
The name that wasn't
At the time there were network plans to give site unique names and domains. Alas the program fizzled before it got to us and our preferred name of Query Posts went on to have a very different life.
The first design
Our first custom design was done and launched, suffering much the same issues with ignoring the feedback and questionable fit.
It was done in aesthetics of printing press and retro typography. In other words none meaningful connection to WordPress niche, other than word play, and history of grievances with readability.
Rename to Development
After years of complaining, lobbying, and roller coaster of exchanges with administration we had finally managed to get renamed into WordPress Development. This has much clarified our branding and helped our scope.
Though in day-to-day the WPSE designation pretty much renamed, WordPress Development hadn't gone on to spawn a new abbreviation.
The direction I'd like to see
While primarily I am expert and active contributor at WPSE, I am also big believer in SE formula and reader of other stacks. When I have a question in an unfamiliar niche the first thing I would check if there is a stack for it.
Over the years I had been somewhat... bitter and feeling like we got the short end of the design stick, comparing to the other stacks. There are quite a few of them that I consider beautifully designed. Not just fancy looking, but functioning and upholding the spirit and aesthetics of the whole network.
I don't know how the process works internally. I have a hunch that WordPress is hardly and exciting topic to design for. More so for people who are not actually involved with it.
We aren't the one of network's darlings either, with our visibility contained to our own niche, rather than generically shining for the whole internet.
Yet... I feel pigeonholing us in a shallow mediocre design is unfair to our site's community.
We aren't just visiting here. We are dedicated and hard working part of Stack Exchange network, proud to be in it. Our identity is much stronger influenced by SE principles and goals, than those of WordPress project.
That's the kind design I would like to see for use — design of a Stack Exchange site, shining brightly among equals.