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Jan 25, 2007


Rob Mortimer

Its cliche, but for 26 good reasons.



Aye, aye, aye.

(Though I'm also partial to a little Bodoni now and again.)


Aye, go on then.


There are two issues here. One is the printing one (even screen printing is measured in terms of dpi to a degree given it goes through a mesh)...but this is the lesser of the two and I think we shoudl drop it.

Secondly the typeface issue - which is much more interesting. There's basically very little that I believe I can learn about print here - but typefaces is a different matter. Now - for a start, given the nature of this blog - all your 'ayes' count for nothing. So I'll ignore that one. However - it is clear to anyone who cares to look (even if you've been smashed in the face with a shovel beforehand) that there's no competition between arial and helvetica - and thanks for the elegant illustration to prove it.

My question really is - that (if you can divorce yourselves from your disease and put yourselves in the real world for a minute) - do you think there's any real down side to using arial throughout your corporate communications ? Do you think it looks that bad to even people moderately appreciative of graphic design, even if used as the house typeface ? I appreciate that you designers will automatically see the vulgarity in it - but, what do you think ?


Aye of course!

(Just don't ask Bruno)

Macus Bown

Tom, you are simply wrong.


Wrong about what, 'though ?

Macus Bown

no solid colour on laser printers. All dots. All dots.

And aye.


I never said there WAS solid colour on a laser printer.

Anyway - I'm more interested in the typeface issue.

Can any of you answer my question ?
In the face of a non designer - even to someone moderately skilled in graphic design appreciation - what's the negative in using arial even (and this is important) - even if it used throughout your corporate literature ?

Mike Towers

Just seen this link on SWISSMISS 100 Best Fonts of all time, guess whats No. 1?




Hiya Tom,

There are many negatives in using Arial, especially over Helvetica.

I believe that Arial was designed for the screen which involves a whole set of different spacing issues to print, dot, laser, screen, hot metal or otherwise. However, I may be wrong. Either way Arial was designed by Microsoft as a copy of Helvetica because they couldn't afford to licence Helvetica with every copy of Word. Therefore it's a copy and thus by that very fact inferior.

But when we say not as good, what we're really talking about is spacing.

Bruno makes an excellent case for never minus spacing letters here
and at the same time makes a pretty convincing case for Univers over Helvetica. As Bruno says, a decently designed typeface will require no spacing or kerning for basic text, 8-12 point stuff. That's because all the spacing has been worked out and designed to be read properly.

The little differences in my diagram above, would add up to big differences if you were trying to read Ulysses or a newspaper or even the back of a train ticket. I agree it's hard for the layman to imagine the difference, but there would be a gap in the legibility, I assure you. Legibility is the key and your corporate communications will have much better legibility if set in Helvetica and not Arial.

Now, if you used Arial in a big way and not just for body text, it would look damn ugly. As demonstrated by almost every PowerPoint presentation you've ever seen.

Does that help?


Let's put it this way Tom, if you could wear a silk shirt every day, would you really choose a Rayon one instead (simply because most people you met wouldn't be able to tell the difference)?

Eddie Gonzalez

Aye! I moved to the Mac and can testify to the superiority of Helvetica over Arial. Even on my PC's I have long stayed away from Arial.


I understand where you come from, Tom. Divorcing myself, I don't think it looks that bad. But that kind of detail many times separates good design from mediocre.


A definite aye. Arial is truly evil.


AYE AYE AYE......There is no doubt about it

Ulysses or a newspaper

There is a unpleasantness to this post and the encouragement of the banal comments is stifling what could have been a interesting debate.

What was originally asked was a simple (if rather naive) question about what the aesthetic problems with using Arial are and the alternatives that one has when Helvetica is not available as a system font.

Not only not been answered, but what has followed is blog equivalent of beat-down.

The main problem with Arial (beyond the intentions behind its creation) is that the spacing used between the different characters is inconsistent. This problem isn't shown in the graphic.

Given that the majority of people cannot afford computers, let alone the licensing of fonts, what can one do about it? - http://www.designwritingresearch.org/free_fonts.html is a start - learning how to set type is another.

Bruno Maag

Well, well, well... a very emotional debate, this Helvetica v Arial thing. People seem to hate Arial just for the sake of it. A little bit like designer's dislike for Comic Sans.

But to start off, let's get a little bit of history right. Arial was designed in the Monotype drawing offices, for Microsoft, in the late 80s. The design is not copied, we need to be clear about this. As little as Univers is not a copy of Helvetica. What is identical with Helvetica are the horizontal metrics, spacing and kerning. As it has been pointed out, that Microsoft was not able to (or didn't want to) purchase an appropriate license. Don't forget that about 85% of all computers use Windows. For that reason, Microsoft hardly ever licenses software/fonts but instead buys the product outright. Linotype simply wouldn't have sold the rights to Helvetica.

Now, to go back to the horizontal metrics copy stuff: At the time Helvetica was present on all Macintosh computers. Remember that the early versions of the Mac only carried bitmap fonts and never any PostScript outlines. The outlines were part of the resident fonts in printers. Linotype licensed Helvetica to Adobe in return for receiving a license to produce PostScript Type 1 fonts. Therefore it was in Linotype's interest to have the bitmap fonts available in the Mac system. So, it only made sense from Microsoft's point of view to have a metrically compatible font, in TrueType format, on their systems. This then would in fact print as Helvetica!! (We could possibly start a thread on the whole PostScript v TrueType thing,too, as some people believe that TT is evil.)

The illustration that supposedly shows why Arial is inferior to Helvetica is nonsense. I can't quite see what it is supposed to show. Just because the 'a' does not have a terminal tail doesn't make it bad. Univers doesn't have one either, or Vectora, or Avenir! And if the terminal stroke of at x-height does not finish horizontally - what does it matter? Akzidenz Grotesk doesn't either and it's still a decent typeface.

All of the above doesn't mean that I am a friend of Arial. But I feel if you diss this font you need to give me stronger arguements. I am also no friend of Helvetica. In fact, I would love to see this typeface banned from use for a while. Just so designers can see that there is typographic pond life beyond.

Some people have argued about the awkward spacing. And in this respect I agree. But I also find the spacing in Helvetica quite crude. And before you respond, I want to make clear that I am not talking about Neue Helvetica, which has been reworked and actually runs on different metrics, but I am talking about the Helvetica which was resident on the Mac and on which the metrics of Arial are based.

Arial was never designed to be used as a screenfont. That it became highly legible on the screen is to do with the fact that the Monotype engineering team spent months hinting (enhancing the font for screen use) the font. And in this respect Arial is way superior to Helvetica. You can use Arial in almost any screen environment and it will be legible down to the smallest sizes.

Also, let's not forget that Arial, with the introduction of Windows 95 increased it's characterset to WGL4 which includes Latin A Extended (approx 50 languages), Cyrillic and Greek. Windows 98 saw Arial to also include Arabic and Hebrew (both secular/simplified). Helvetica up to this day hasn't gotten beyond Lat A Extended.

So, this all makes me sound a Arial-lover. But I am not, for the reasons stated above. But we cannot deny the fact that Arial is a work horse typeface, and a very successful one at that.

I apologise if my thoughts are somewhat disjointed. I tried to respond to some of the points made in the order of appearance.

Bruno Maag

Culture is Kind

(Just read Bruno's post, but gotta dash now so his comments aren't addressed - sorry. Funny that he went into the history element - will make more sense below)

As a cultural insight dude - whatever ‘that’ is! - a fair bit of my work involves trawling and using design - which I love. Design is one of the best lenses for spotting emerging culture. So, I suppose what I really 'do', is 'design culture' rather than 'design' per se.

So, why is Helvetica the best font I ask? It is because its graphic properties are somehow more superior to the rest (‘fact’. end of); that they somehow resonate most strongly with our innate psychology on what's 'attractive design'? Or, is it because the design community has socially agreed principles on what constitutes good design (its design period, kerning etc.) - ones that the lay person is not in touch with?

My feeling is that it's the latter i.e. if Helvetica had been the default font on MS Word from day one I doubt it would still be held in such high regard by graphic designers. I suppose what I'm saying, is that graphic fonts are unable to stand outside of their own fashion cycle. For example, in non-design circles, I'd say the evolution from Times New Roman to Arial to Verdana has been pretty standard - which is why I hate Verdana as much as you guys hate Arial … so bloody ‘try hard’ and chunky!

Going back to my earlier question, I'm keen to find out why Helvetica is the designer's choice. From a socio-historical point of view, my guess is that this event has been historically determined i.e. it is not because it has superior innate qualities because there are no universal laws as such (only socially constructed ones). My guess is that pivotal moments/events in the history of design have shaped this outcome.

So, can anyone think of any important designers, events in Apple's history etc. that may have shaped this outcome?

(Sorry for highjacking your post Ben. If I’m talking jibberish just delete it [although I expect people will just ignore it anyway!] Oh, and it’s an ‘aye’ from me … albeit not one of my own choosing!)


Thanks Bruno for providing some concrete historical fact. (Bruno is a fontographer and former Chairman of the Typographic Circle so he knows his onions.)

Tom, does this answer your question? Have we proved what you always suspected? Is anything any clearer? I suspect not...

Are you coming to coffee tomorrow?


OK - hmmmm. I feel that on the one hand I cannot now participate in this discussion due to its technical-ness. I also feel that to you lot this is by far the most interesting end of the intellectual continuum, too. So I'll back out.

However - not before I make it a bit real. Ben - I'm going to send you some corporate comms that my company has (had) done (for itself). I think it's all done in Arial - and I think that I absolutely understand what you all mean - especially about the spacing thing, and the lots of little details adding up to one big messy picture.

And for the record - although I sense this guy Bruno is some kind of typeface dude I disagree that the illustration is nonsense (although I couldn't comment on how satisfactory it is as a tool to compare the beauty of the two fonts. I don't even know what criteria you lot would use to measure that). However - for me the Helvetica just FEELS more satisfactory - more elegant. It seems to resolve itself all of a one-ness visually and to the extent that this visual impression makes some kind of more cerebral impact. It just makes me feel that it's more refined - BETTER.


And coffee?


Every time I read an Arial vs. Helvetica post (this seems to be a favorite topic for you aesthetically erudite types) it makes me a little sad, because it reminds me there a world of gorgeous typography I am missing out on because I can't drop a hundred on fonts instead of textbooks. Then I remind myself that the first step towards curing "design disease" is accepting Arial.

dan at innocent

Can we do Frazzles versus Monster Munch next?


How about Innocent versus PJ instead?


I think Mr Culture up there has made a good point about the big H being so popular because of socio-historical reasons. And it's interesting that Bruno makes it clear that he's not talking about Neue Helvetica which is my default Helvetica, the "system" version being as shite as Arial.

Incidentally, for your records Ben, I don't think Bruno is Typo Circle Chairman any more. I have a feeling he abdicated that throne about the time he came to see us (i was in Design Week). I think now he's just King Typoman of Maagstein or something.

I do love it when he gets all technical.

And I'd vote Frazzles.


I'm a Seabrook's man - to the extent that I have been drafted onto a secret panel to test some of their new flavours. At least you know where you are with Seabrook's. They're CRISPS. None of this 'is it food ?', 'Is it drink ?' that you get with fruit in a bottle.

Bruno Maag

Richard, you are right. I handed over that scepter about a year ago. The committee remains the same, in fact it's slightly larger. There have been some changes, most visibly the website (www.typocircle.co.uk). So, keep supporting the TC.

Tom, just because I've gone a bit technical doesn't mean you can't participate. I simply wanted to provide some background other than I like/don't like Arial. I have worked as a typographer, in one way or another, for about 25 years now, most of which was spent designing type. I look at font differently.

Again, I would like to dissuade my clients from using Arial. It does their image no good whatsoever. In most cases it makes corporate communictions look tatty. In companies I have found that often it is the IT managers who are reluctant to introduce a new font. To a degree I can understand that, what with many design agencies not doing their job properly assessing if the font they chose is actually appropriate to the client's needs (technical, language support). It comes from an inherent paranoia to share the client details with a partner, such as myself. But partly it is because once the system works, IT Managers become bone idle, not wanting to introduce anything that could rock their cosy boat, even if it would improve the company's looks.

To go back to the above illustration: in order to assess a typeface we need to look at it as a whole. Of course, it is ok to pick out one character that you think is nice, but that does not mean that it fits together as a whole. As little as I would suggest Arial to a client, I would suggest Helvetica. I find it clumsy, unrefined. It's a peasant, really, with all the charms of a peasant. Amusing for a while but then you'd long for something more refined.

Bruno Maag

Rob Mortimer

What about Helvetica vs Helvetica Neue, a very 90s battle?

Rob Mortimer

Actually, referencing what was said before; I think the situation is very much:

"We should use Helvetica instead of Arial, its easier to read and looks nicer."

'Ok, will it take long?'

"Not really, I do need to buy the font though."

'Buy? A font?'

"Yes. Its only about £200"

'Hahahaha. No chance. Cant we use Comic Sans?'

David Airey

I can't match some of the above posts for how indepth they go, so I'll just come out with it...

...Chilli doritos with a hot salsa dip.

Way to go.

Bruno Maag

What misconception about font pricing!!! An OpenType font, containing full Latin A Extended comes in at around £30 per weight for a basic 5 user license. Not much if you consider that you can communicate with around 2 billion people.

Instead of the Helv Neue v Helv debate can't we have a debate about abolishing, banning Helvetica altogether? It's a crap typeface, it was crap right from the start.

Bruno Maag



"Bruno is a fontographer and former Chairman of the Typographic Circle"

Bruno Maag

BTW, chilli doritos and salsa dip sound good. I'll be cooking some calamari and prawns in batter with Mango/Chilli sauce. All of it on a bed of rocket.

I know, that belongs in a different blog. Let's go back to discussing type: What do people think of Adobe Garamond, and do they prefer a different version? I very much like Simoncini Garamond, although Adobe's is very nice, albeit a bit bland when set in body copy. But I do feel that Adobe's Caslon is a total master piece. In my opinion not even the original Caslon comes close.

Bruno Maag


OK guys, can we get serious now and start talking about Univers - the best (sans-serif) typeface of the lot, when all is said and done?

Rob Mortimer

Can I at least justify my pricing incorrectness by adding im not actually a designer, just a fan of graphic design and typography.

Sounds interesting, what could replace Helvetica as THE font in design. Gill Sans for one wild suggestion.

Bruno Maag

Hurray! The problem is that there isn't much to say about it. The reason being that it is probably as close to perfect as you can get. For me as a type designer, Univers is the Nirwana, the Walhalla of creation.

However, we can debate whether Linotype's update of Univers actually did it any good. This is the version that they now sell in their platinum series.

I think it is actually nicer. It was refined by the very talented Akira Kobayashi in cooperation with Adrian Frutiger. The changes are subtle and without direct comparison you can hardly spot them. But it feels differently; tighter somewhat.

But I really do not understand why Linotype decided to change the genius numbering system for the different styles. To me that smacks of a sales gimmick. Well, marketing people function in mysterious ways.

So, tripple cheers for Univers. I'd happily give up my day job and wash plates if the rest of the world adopted Univers as the font to be used. But, as long as typographic atrocities are committed it needs people who stand up against such crime against humanity and visual pollution.

Bruno Maag


Good man Bruno, I knew I could rely on you.

See Ben, real (typo)men love Univers most of all (granted we don't make films about it, though).

Culture is King

You see, Bruno is shaping the history of Helvetica as we speak! After this thread it will always have a slightly different sphere of meanings, right?

Hey, sorry for contributing to the over-intellectualising - appreciate most of you are practitioner-type folk. But if my ramblings do anything, I think it’s important to also think about the meanings attached to fonts, rather than just what they look like technically.

To build on one of Bruno's important points - that design agencies do not accurately assess if the fonts they chose are appropriate to the client's needs - I would like to add that it's not whether the 'font is right', but whether 'the font's meanings are right' for the client. And it's because the meanings of fonts change over time that the designer's task is challenging, yet more interesting perhaps.

In summary then: Helvetica is an iconic design brand - not a technical design masterpiece.


This is quite possibly the best typographic discussion I've ever read.

Thanks for that.


Notice that it all got much better when I backed out. I have a real computer because I have to do real work - and so, not being in possession of a toy like the rest of you I do not have many of these Fisher Price fonts. I DO have Garamond and Gill Sans however - they are 'good', are they ?

Can anyone recommend a book that I can buy to learn about this stuff ?



Macus Brown

"Fisher Price fonts" genius.


Thanks Ben. I'll tell you what I learn


Fascinating! Am no expert in these matters, but always use 'Verdana' or 'Tahoma'- never 'Arial'.

Will have to see if Helvetica is on there.


Seems quite ironic that this webpage is using Trebuchet MS and Verdana.


Again, for what it's worth, I think Mr Culture is right and what he's talking about is, perhaps, really why Helvetica is so popular with Designers. It's not so much Helvetica the typeface but Helvetica the typebrand. Does that make any sense to anyone else?

(On a minor note, in my previous contribution it should have read "it was in Design Week" and not "i was in..." I've never been in Design Week).


jodie marsh phwwwoooarrrrrrr

Culture is King

Hey Richard, glad/relieved it seems to make some sense (take it the 100 e-dollars are payable to Acejet 170 Ltd?)

As for 'Mr Culture' ... not sure I quite do that title justice - plus the tribal anthropologists would probably get arsey!

Thanks for the fun and frolics all


I'd like to thank Bruno for being active in these dicussions, this and the one about minus tracking/comic sans on acejet have both been interesting. thank you.

I agree with idea of "Helvetica the typebrand".
When you use Helvetica as a display font, you are borrowing a lot of branding dollars from a lot of other companies/designers' work - these projects have made it a font that gets across a certain feeling because of where you have seen it before & how it was used...

Rob Mortimer

It seems that using Helvetica is the equivalent of wearing a suit to an interview. It makes a statement, even if it looks just like everyone else's suit unless tailored (spaced?) well...

Charles Frith

Real (typo) men love Univers most of all? Hell, I was just dating Bodoni recently in a few presentations ;)


In my opinion, apart from technicalities, there is no discussion.
Arial is clearly a look alike of Helvetica (the example with A is a bit misleading, only in the lighter weight Helvetica has the little tail... but this blog is really well done, keep doing it).
I would have called the lawyers.
To discuss the fortune of Helvetica is a much complicated task, that goes back to modernism, purity, and so on, but it's undeniable that Helvetica is popular because it has a strong personality, even if we think it hasn't becouse of its ubiquity.
It has passed the test of time, which has killed many of newcomers font of the last decades. Of course that does not mean it will be with us forever, but it should be treated with respect, as every font family well executed. And Arial didn't do that: they got on the shoulder of a giant, and take the world just because of the diffusion of PC.
Plus, you surely know this:


Aye yi yi. Mmmmmm, Helvetica. Thank you for validating me.

Ricardo Cordoba

Hi, all, I am coming in a bit late here. Just wanted to add that in addition to Bruno Maag's explanation above, type designer Mark Simonson has a great article on his website, called "The Scourge of Arial", which offers much useful information on both typefaces:


"Bruno is a fontographer..."

I hate to get all snobby and pedantic with terminology, but Bruno is a type designer. "Fontographer" is a computer program for making typefaces. :-)


Good point Ricardo.

Todd Duren

First, let me say how much this posting and string of comments has brought out my inner type geek. Second, let me offer to buy Bruno a drink if ever he stumbles into Knoxville, Tennessee. His comments are spot on I think.

When I was a wee designer in the 80s I got good and tired of Helvetica. It was when the design world was coasting through the last gasp of Swiss/International/Grid influences, and all the exciting stuff (in my opinion) ignored it. Helvetica was made popular by designers setting it flush left and clothesline-style hanging from the top margin in skinny columns. Its main value it seems to me is its stylish invisibility. Its the typographic Men in Blackthe font you are supposed to forget as soon as youve seen it. Arial is Men in Black in polyester.

Helvetica is categorized by some as a grotesqe font, a sans serif face with uneven strokes that is neither as warmly humanistic as Gill Sans, nor as geometrically perfect as Futura. As for readability and spacing, both these qualities are real and important enough, but are mystically overemphasized when a designer is losing the aesthetic wars and cant think of anything else to say. I defer to Bruno on these details he seems to know what hes talking about.

Helvetica has had a huge resurgence it arty design circles of late, but I hope it plays out soon. As Bruno says, Helveticas popularity blocks other lovely fonts from view: Mrs. Eaves, Bodoni, the classic Goudyeven Myriad. It would be sad for a new generation to graduate with design degrees as a one-trick pony.

Mr Diacritic

I think what makes me so TIRED of these kinds of discussions is the ridiculous amount of narcissistic self aggrandising showoff nonsense masquerading as discussion. I don't know how Bruno Maggs has the patience to put up with any of you, endlessly beating your designer chests while regurgitating the same half-baked opinions.

"X is ugly! Y is pretty!"
"Real men prefer Z!"
"Everybody knows that Z was Hitler's favourite!"

If none of you are able to articulate the difference between 'best' and 'favourite' you should try to think about how that impoverishes your ability to make critical judgements.

Fetishising the products of actual type designers doesn't do us any favours. In fact it makes us despair. Like every time somebody who professes to be interested in typography says 'font' when they are discussing a typeface.

Typography is not a beauty contest, any more than it is a popularity contest. There is no all-time Best. Every project has its own solution. Every typeface has a range of uses.

And finally, Ben - please learn how to use apostrophes correctly. Or just don't use them at all, which might be easier.

R Simmon

Another good book on typography is The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.


For the purposes of keeping it simple and to balance out some of the overly technical aspects of the Arial vs Helvetica issue, its really quite simple:

Helvetica has "soul", whereas Arial definitely does not.

E - http://blog.ateava.com/

paul merrill

In the face of starving people, this argument looks pretty insignificant.

I'm not dismissing the importance of good design; I'm just trying to give SOME of you perspective.

Brian Gough



Sounds like the usual 'Graphic Snobbery' and 'Graphic Self-importance' to me. you're talking about two decades old typefaces that have been used so much that they are in the system fonts of every computer on sale in the world. Guys, get over it. Do you also collect useless junk because you think old stuff is elitist? Both Helvetica and Arial are shite for doing anything other than corporate brochures for anally-retentive German architectual firms.


Mr Diacritic, you infer that "font" is in some way incorrect. That discussion has happened but a little digging around will show you that both are technically accurate. There is a misconception that the latter is a product of our "digital age". But let's not open that old chestnut up again!

I do agree about Ben's sloppy use of the apostrophe though. Shame on you Ben.

Paul, you make an excellent point about lines being parallel in photos. Everyone, check it out; he's right:
I'm often correcting this kind of thing in Photoshop.


"...the latter..."?

That'll teach me for trying to leave/edit a meaningful comment while talking to a roomful of people.

Note to self: Don't blog in meetings.


Hey Karl, old stuff is the old new stuff. Bet you've got some old stuff tucked away somewhere.

Mr Diacritic

Richard -
Unfortunately for your cred you've confused "imply" with "infer".

As for font vs, typeface, just because people get tired of hearing it doesn't make it less true... however if you can show me where I may read evidence I am mistaken and I will happily cede the point.


"Font" is a derivative of "Fount", the letterpress term. Both can be found in a Glossary of Typographic Terms published by Blueprint which pre-dates digital type. I'd guess (but could be wrong) that the misconception (which I too once subscribed to) comes from it being a) the less popular term amongst designers in the old days, and b) the chosen term of the digital type industy. I favour "typeface" too.

I actually have a serious problem with the term "typefont" (!?) which a colleague of mine uses frequently. I have no idea where that comes from and can't find written reference to it anywhere. Perhaps someone out there will tell me that that's a legitimate term.

Bruno Maag

Just to get this right. A typeface and a font are two different things. A typeface is the design of the letters represented. That can be in any language/script system. A font is a collection of glyphs in any design. These glyphs can be anything, from actual letters to ornaments or sorts.

However, the two have become synonymous in everyday language and most people actually wouldn't quite understand 'typeface'. But they all know what a font is.

Bruno Maag

John Lord

For the web site I work on I need a typeface that many users actually have on their system and that has Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, and if possible Thai and a bunch of other languages. Helvetica is ruled out just by the paltry glyph set, even ignoring its overuse. The fact that Microsoft keeps extending the character sets of the typefaces it provides with the OS (I'm thinking of Tahoma) is driving the use of those fonts, almost regardless of aesthetic qualities of the Helvetica vs Arial sort. Isn't any other foundry going to compete?

diego nedelcu

I can imagine those monks giggling and laughing at Gutemberg saying "that punk from maguncia, jajajaj, he has "just" made a copy of OUR textura type, jajajaja, those solid characters don't have the beauty of our hand painted letters. Let him die in hell and all this nonsense will be forgotten, jajajaja, poor boy, what a bum!!"

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