Are freelance designers really suckers?

expert freelancer

When someone tells you they’re a freelancer, what are your first thoughts?

Does the freelance job title give an impression of expert, or of someone new to the field, perhaps picking up jobs to make ends meet?

Tony Clark (of and ) prompted me to publish this post after writing how freelancing is for suckers.

While at first he didn’t want to admit it, Tony’s realisation came when he was working on a web redesign for a real estate consultant. About five iterations had been produced, with not one to the satisfaction of the client, even though Tony considered the results to be beautiful, and very user-friendly.

It turns out the client wasn’t at all interested in Tony’s expertise or knowledge of good design. All the real estate consultant wanted was someone to create what he thought was good design, even though he had no design education, and this became apparent to Tony when his client said:

“You’re a vendor, I’m the client. I don’t care what you think, just do it like I ask.”

I’ve been self-employed for just two and a half years, but I already know exactly the design client that Tony refers to.

When I started, I branded myself as a freelance designer, but it wasn’t long before I worked with someone who disagreed with every alternative I presented, claiming that none were suitable for the job. I even took a hit and worked for a lot longer than I was being paid for.

In his article, Tony adds:

“Freelancing is a great way to start out, but if you’re just doing it to cover the basic needs, you’ll be scrambling forever to keep up. There are options though — and I thought I found the perfect solution. .”

Today I brand myself as a graphic designer and design consultant, as opposed to freelance graphic designer. I don’t know if it makes a difference to my clients, but each one since the change has been very happy with what I do.

Here’s an interesting hierarchical diagram, from Tony’s article, showing freelancers on the bottom rung.

self-employment hierarchy
Image copyright:

Tony typically defines a freelancer as one person working on many short-term projects, and Jeanne, of Writer’s Notes, added this comment:

“It is an unfortunate reality that, very often, freelancers, like temp workers, get no respect. (I’ve functioned in both capacities.) Of course, there are many employers who treat their employees with zero respect, as well.”

What do you think?

As a client, would you consider a consultant more knowledgeable than a freelancer? Perhaps you think it takes time before a freelancer earns the right to be called a consultant, but in reality, a graphic designer already wears .

As a designer, do you think the freelance title attracts a negative impression of what you do? Do you, or have you, ever defined yourself as a freelance designer? If so, it’d be great to read your opinion.

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  1. That is very interesting.
    I never thought about that…
    I guess I’m going to be calling myself an independent contractor from now on…

  2. David,

    Enjoyed your post–though I’m not a graphic designer. The points you’ve made are really quite universally applicable and offer some excellent food for thought. Perhaps we freelance writers would be better off referring to ourselves simply as “writers.” After all, most employees don’t use the word “employee” when describing their line of work, so why should we be expected to use the word “freelance”? And, perhaps more importantly, consultants, experts, and gurus often freelance but rarely use the word. In today’s world, image is everything.

    Thanks for quoting my comment–and thanks for visiting Writer’s Notes!


  3. I have had many similar clients and came out with the same conclusions. Ok, I understand if someone doesn’t like my work but to be rude in purpose, it’s just wrong. If I can be a professional so can my clients.

  4. Brian, I’d thought about something similar before reading Tony’s post. Food for thought, even if you choose to continue freelancing.

    Jeanne, my pleasure linking to and visiting Writer’s Notes. Great point about employees not using the word ‘employee’.

    Marko, sorry to read about that. Some people don’t know any better. As designers, like any profession, we take knocks personally. I invite criticism on my projects, as it’s a great way to learn, but criticism must be constructive to be of any use.

  5. It’s interesting you call yourself a consultant David, that paints a completely different picture in my mind to either a contractor or a freelancer. A consultant is someone who I think of as being hands off, advising as opposed to doing. Although I think that’s more down to me being fully entrenched in the software development side of things and not in “creative”. As a BA I’d consider myself a consultant and if I were to break away from the company I currently work for, I’d label myself as such, and not a freelancer or contractor. Horses for courses I guess.

  6. Interesting discussion David. I agree with Simon somewhat – the word “consultant” gives me a picture of someone who gives their opinion and expertise, but doesn’t necessarily produce a design. But, hey, if it’s been working for you, that’s good. I prefer just “graphic designer”, or “designer”, leaving out the word “freelance” all together.

  7. Never really crossed my mind before now, but yes, I could see from a client perspective where the word “freelancer” could hold a negative impression. To someone in the business, it doesn’t, but to someone on the outside I guess they could interpret freelancer as being someone who does design work, but basically just does whatever the client wants (like you mentioned in the article). Regardless of what everyone says, the client is not always right. :)

    Calling yourself a consultant or graphic/web designer does sound somewhat more professional I guess.

    Nice write up.

  8. After doing this for about 6 years and looking back over my diverse client base – there are the majority of client who work with you and the project ends up being a sucess as a result of open, two-way communication. And there is that handful of clients who fall into that “I’m paying you – you will do what I want” category and no amount of ‘consulting’ changes the flow or direction of the project.

    I can’t say with any authority whether or not wearing a “Feelancer” or “Consultant” hat would have changed the direction of those particular projects, quite honestly.

    No matter what we call ourselves… there will always be *those* clients, I think.

    Interesting post, David!

  9. Simon, hat picture is one I have too, how the consultant is more hands-off. Maybe I could label myself more effectively, it’s just that as I see it, I provide a lot of feedback to clients, and they ask for advice on many topics other than simply identity design.

    Randa, it’s working so far, although the only place I actually label myself is on my ‘about’ page. When talking, I say ‘graphic designer’. I’d do the same as you, leaving out the word ‘freelance’ altogether.

  10. Deron,

    Thanks for your take on things bud. I think it does seem a little more professional to go the contractor / consultant route, even if you continue with the same skills.


    Been a while, I hope all’s well with you? I think you’re spot on, that there’ll always be those clients, no matter what hat you’re wearing. Perhaps the frequency might change, but like you, I’ve no actual proof of that.

  11. David – thanks :) Things are better now that I’ve leaped some of the more chaotic hurdles in life over the past few months….I’ve been reading your feed, though – I’ve just been falling down on commenting on some of your great articles :)

  12. David,

    Perhaps you could go the “graphic designer/consultant” route. That would make it obvious that you do the hands-on work (which, in itself, takes a great deal of skill) but, at the same time, would lend more authority to your work–which could help with “those” (more difficult) clients.


  13. Really interesting post, David.

    The way I’ve separated it over the years is that I’m “freelance” if I’m working on site for someone else and “I have my own graphic design business” if I’m working for a client. As I did less and less work in someone else’s office and more in my own, I called myself a graphic designer. At this point I’m even rethinking that — it sounds too specialized. But “identity consultant” or “branding pro” sound a little forced to me. I like creative director, but maybe it’s more of a title?

    Regardless of what I’ve called myself, though, I agree that sometimes I’ve had clients that just see me as a pair of hands on the keyboard and mouse to channel their great ideas. It usually turns out to be unsatisfying on both ends — I feel like my knowledge and expertise aren’t being used and the client wonders why the idea isn’t coming together the way he hoped. Design should be collaborative, and just as a know-it-all designer isn’t good, neither is the client who can’t take advice.

  14. Leslie,

    How about “branding consultant”?


  15. Great post David, very thought-provoking.

    I also find it interesting to observe how people working for themselves across different industries brand themselves; some automatically refer to themselves as contractors, while for others the word freelancers seems to apply almost universally. For example, in my previous profession – journalism – those working independently are referred to as freelancers, and in many instances are treated just as you’ve described.

    Another thought; if you decide to set up for yourself as a freelancer, at what point do you make the transition from freelancer to independent contractor? The perception that clients have is one thing (and important to consider); how you describe yourself also speaks volumes about how you consider yourself professionally and how you position yourself in the marketplace. I will be giving this a lot of thought. Thanks.

  16. To me freelancer almost has the connotation of “moonlighter”. It makes me think of places like eLance where it’s about bottom dollar prices. In the context of graphic or web design / development nothing about “freelancer” makes me think of “expert”.

    Why would you include “freelancer” or “contractor” in your title anyways?

    You want to quickly convey your core competencies. What does “freelancer” tell anyone? I can’t think of anything positive.

    Focus on what you do – not the structure of your business.

  17. No worries, Lisa,

    I know how easily things can build up. A belated congrats on your five year blog anniversary! That’s a huge achievement, which kind of dwarfs my recent one year anniversary. I hope the web event in New York is lots of fun, and thanks for reading my posts via RSS.


    I appreciate your opinion, and I think the designer / consultant route could work, if I was to push it more than I do at present. Maybe one day I’ll take a less hands-on approach, depending on expansion, or passive income routes, but for now I really enjoy being involved with design, collaborating with clients as Leslie mentions.


    That’s a great sentence you typed:

    Design should be collaborative, and just as a know-it-all designer isn’t good, neither is the client who can’t take advice.

    I’ve also previously labelled myself as freelance when working ‘on-site’. I guess it’s a way to differentiate yourself from the employees who surround you. What do you reckon of Jeanne’s idea of ‘branding consultant’, or ‘brand consultant’? Personally I prefer it to either ‘identity consultant’ or ‘branding pro’, but that’s very subjective considering only you know what you do best.


    Glad I provoked a few thoughts. Testament to Tony’s original blog post. Good question about the transition from freelancer to contractor. When becoming self-employed, do you even need to call yourself a freelancer? I don’t think so.

    I mention in the post about a freelancer ‘earning the right’ to call themselves a consultant, but for me, I’d not have made the move to self-employment if I didn’t think I was able to teach people about my trade.


    The term ‘freelancer’ also makes me think of places like eLance and, where low prices are the norm. Not great when wanting to position yourself at the higher end of the marketplace.

  18. I was actually of the complete opposite opinion – that freelancers can be of a very high standard. This assumption has largely been come to by regular visits to CSS Remix, where many of the designs are by freelancers.

    Also, the thing is with freelancers is that they have lowers cost. Whereas a design agency really needs a minimum of £150 a day, a freelancer could probably eek by on £150 a week. So a freelancer is able to do more for the money, but to what standard?

    I only ever did one site as a freelancer and was severely abused by the client. You have done very well to survive for two and a half years :)

  19. One of the things that prompted me to write that series is the number of highly gifted creative people I’ve worked with that “settled” for whatever work they could hustle up. Just by making a small shift in mindset, you begin to realize that you really are an expert, and not just a pen (or tablet and mouse) for hire. What’s interesting is as I was talking with some people about his subject, I gave your name as someone I consider an expert in the field of graphic arts and design. The way you position yourself on your “hire me” page is as an expert, which I’m guessing gets you better and higher paying work.

    My goal with the series was to get other folks out of the “take what you can get” mindset, and see how they can position themselves as experts and trusted advisors. The pay is better, the work is better, and the client respect is definitely better.

  20. David,

    I just want to thank you for the great write-up, and for sharing Tony’s great article. It does make for excellent inspirational reading! The part about how Freelancers gets abused definitely rings true to heart.

    Interestingly, I have to ask if you fine folks can explain further about your experiences with eLance. Reason why is because I’m actually interested in signing up. Sure enough, there are tons of underpaid projects and low-balling quotes are common practices. But at the same time I have noted several higher profile projects also made available over there?

    I know this because I am a free user right now, so I get updates on these ‘higher-profile’ projects.

    Do share your thoughts~! Thanks!

  21. Thanks for sharing Tony’s story and your own thoughts on the situation, David. I just had a very difficult experience with this kind of client and last week I nearly packed it all in. This has given me some things to think on as I move on from that job….

  22. Great post. Time for new business cards…

  23. David,

    Nice to read that you highly value some freelancers, although I’d not expect anyone to become self-employed in order to ‘eek by on £150 ($300) a week’.


    Thanks for the kind words, and for your impression on my ‘hire me’ page. I am able to attract higher paid work at this point, than I have been at any other point in my short period of self-employment, although putting this down to how I position myself isn’t so clear.

    My organic search engine traffic has increased greatly over the past few months, and my portfolio was previously very thin (it still is to some respects, but I’m continuously adding new projects).

    So there are a number of reasons, but I do believe that my ‘hire me’ page is a contributing factor.


    You’re very welcome. Regarding eLance, and similar websites, because there are so many underpaid projects, it takes much longer to find any worthwhile ones. I can use this time to concentrate on my own marketing, and contacting people directly who I want to work with, as opposed to finding the needle in a haystack, then bidding on that job in the hope that I’m selected to do the work.

    If anyone has a different opinion on freelance website pricing it’d be great to know.


    Sorry to read about your experience last week. Don’t be discouraged, however, as I’ve found that it takes those bad experiences to make more good ones. For every negative there’s a positive, and I’m sure you’ve learnt a thing or two in the process?


    I’d like to see your business cards, either now or following some new designs. Have you posted them online anywhere?

  24. Hi David, I’ve been subscribed to your blog for a couple of months now and I look forward to the emails arriving, keep up the good work.

    Back on topic!

    Recently I considered using a freelancer’s services to help cover the workload. I get quite alot of CV’s sent through, and this particular chap had an excellent portfolio of flash based projects.

    Unfortunately, although he was initially very keen to complete the work on offer, over the next few days it became increasingly difficult to contact him to discuss the requirements and costs in detail.

    In the end I did not use his services, simply because of the initial communication problems, I dreaded to think what might happen if there were any alterations during the project itself, which in turn would have a detrimental effect with the client relationship.


  25. Just wanted to say thanks for this thought provoking entry. I really enjoy your blog and your articles are great! I have to say, having “freelanced” at one of the USA’s largest financial corporation’s advertising agency, I no longer think of myself as a freelancer. I went in to the office every day and myself and other freelancers would commiserate on the great benefits, employee discounts and perks that we weren’t getting. Going in to the corporate world every day knowing full well you’re not a “real” employee will cure you of that quickly!

    Freelancers, to me, are those seeing jobs through creative agencies, not those who are running their own thing with their own clients. If you’re running your own business, you are a consultant/designer/guru. To the client, you are all those things. If you still want to “freelance” at a few outside sites, so be it but when they’re your clients, you’re no longer a freelancer.

  26. That’s an interesting thought, which I hadn’t considered before.

    I’ve noticed a difference in the type of clients I’ve been attracting lately as well. I never purposefully thought about my wording, but after looking over my Services page, the word freelance is nowhere to be found…

    With that said, I think having a blog is a huge factor in the new-found respect. It’s one thing for a client not to take the advice of a designer they’ve never met, but it’s a lot harder to ignore their advice when their blog shows that x-hundred (Or x-thousand for some :p ) other people are taking their advice daily.

  27. James,

    That’s great that you’re an email subscriber. Thanks very much. Had you thought about using RSS as an alternative? Over the past year I’ve found that some people unsubscribe from email alerts because they prefer to keep their inboxes work-related, and RSS is a good way to do that, without missing any blog posts.

    I think you were definitely right not to go with the freelancer you mention, and for those communication reasons too. That’s a benefit of hosting a blog, as a potential client can see that you communicate frequently.


    Good of you to leave your take on things, thanks a lot, and it’s my pleasure providing info you think is relevant.


    That’s a great point about having a blog with a decent readership. For those potential clients who are familiar with subscriber stats, it’ll certainly help build trust. Without my blog, and the information I publish, I’m sure it’d take a lot more time attracting those clients who approach me through my website.

  28. how do you deal with rude clients that does not respect your design?

  29. Chiho,

    When clients don’t respect your work, approach them with a level head. Stay calm, and speak to them as you would like to be spoken to.

    Treat them as your teachers, because we can all learn how to practice patience.

  30. I know one thing that seems to help a lot when dealing with the rude clients:

    Make sure to clarify the relationship up front as much as possible. I always make it a point to ask if the client is working with us to come up with an effective solution together, or if we’re expected to be more of a production company for the client’s ideas. It’s weird to ask this, but I’m always surprised how often it’s not what I expected.

    Usually that gives me a pretty good awareness of how the project is going to go.

    If there’s still a little bit of ambiguity with the relationship I stress that the project is for the client’s customers. Not the client. And that there’s a good chance the client may not like it personally, but will get results with their customers.

    After that, you’re pretty much guaranteed to know whether or not the client is going to be a pain in the butt.

    Great post! Thanks!

  31. Great discussion here, folks.

    I’ve recently become a freelancer myself and in the last week alone I saw a little bit of everything discussed in these comments.

    I was asked to design a logo for $15 and to write a 1,000 word SEO article for $2. I refused both commissions because I’m not about to set the bar that low for myself or my fellow designers. Seems low prices like that are contagious, as you guys mentioned with eLance and Scriptlance.

    But on the other side of the coin, I picked up a WordPress redesign, business card/logo design and some writing work for prices that were just fine. The fancy thing about those is that each came from clients who’d already hired someone else but who had stopped communicating.

    So basically, even though I was second or third in line, I still got work just due to communication alone. Definitely a learning experience for me.

  32. Sounds like Tony’s client is a textbook example of the kind of client who should be fired. ;)

  33. Dan,

    That’s an interesting way to clarify the working relationship. Do you ever find, that when you say your project is for the client’s customers, that the client tells you they know their customer best?

    Regardless, no doubt your method lets each party know exactly what’s happening. Thanks for commenting, and keep providing those great quotes.


    Very glad to read you refused both those ridiculous commissions. Some people are really quite ignorant of the services other people provide.

    That’s great that you’re learning. Each day is a learning process for me too, and no matter what happens, it’s always obvious how important good communication with the client is.


    Yep, you got that right. Even though I hate doing it, and it’s a very rare occurrence, sometimes you’ve just got to pull the trigger.

  34. I don’t actually have business cards because I have no idea how to market myself. I made a design a few months ago that I thought was good, but I can’t find it right now. I think my name is too long to market myself by full name like you. There is no image that fits well with my name. And I don’t have much money. That kinda limits me. By the way, I noticed comments are now “top notch” instead of “excellent.” I’m glad to see the quality has improved.

  35. My name is really long too, even the name of my design studio is long. It’s the hardest thing to market yourself, but I suggest you just bite the bullet and do one look. You can always change it later. Even David on this blog has the evolution of his own site. I’ve had my business for a year and already changed the look once (although I doubt I’ll do it again for a while.) Invest in a book like “The Best of Logos, Corporate Identity, Business Cards” etc and browse through for inspiration. Whatever you come up with is better than having nothing. I know the decision can be paralyzing but push through! You’ll be glad you did.

  36. Freelacer, contractor, expert,….in my opinion, nothing from that is really important if your work sucks. If your designs are good, you can call yourself whatever you like, also> freelancing contracting expert < and people will still order the stuff by you. Harris, marketing is one of the most important stuff, belive me, you must promote yourself somehow. If not, you can be a Picasso, but if people will not know you, noone will order something by you and you can call yourself whatever you like. Don’t think about, when your name is to long,…..” NewWebPick ” sounds this something special ?, like for some experts, good designers, artist ?. For sure not, but it’s probably one of the best and most readed online graphic designer & digital artist magazine in the world.

  37. David,

    Dang! Thats’ always a tough one… The client always knows their customer better, but they usually don’t know the medium and how to communicate effectively with it.

    I like to look at it from an “idea vs. execution” perspective. If the client says something needs to be blue, for example, they’re making a design execution. I always try and pull it back to the idea level and find out they don’t think it’s professional enough, or whatever the case may be. Then solve that problem, hopefully, in a more effective way than how the client was approaching it. I try my best to never let a client make a design execution. After that happens a few times, the client tends to get the point.

    And, of course, sometimes they’re just stubborn. Then I just do the best to make the client happy, skip putting the project in the portfolio, and try and find out what I did or how I presented myself in a way that created that relationship. Live and learn. :)

  38. Interesting, I have actually started saying that I’m a “self employed” designer rather than “freelance” designer, I think it sounds more professional

  39. I view myself as a freelancer who works for his own entertainment, mostly because the money just isn’t there in my blog niche.

    As far as money goes, I make very little, but the respect and admiration of my co-workers is undeniably cool.

    Now, if I could only start making a little money with my hobby…

  40. Harris,

    There’s nothing to say you need a mark, image or icon to go with your name, and you could always abbreviate, such as Todd And (for Todd Andrlik). I can empathise with creating a personal identity though, and I struggled for some time before I had to say, “enough is enough”, and just get on with it.

    You have a keen eye, noticing how comments are now top notch. ;)


    That’s good advice, and you’re right. It can always be changed (or evolved) as I’ve done on more than one occasion!


    Of course if your work is no good, it doesn’t really matter what you label yourself. The point I’m getting at is that many people see your name / job title etc. before getting a glimpse of your portfolio, and you want to give the most favourable impression possible beforehand.

    If you have an excellent portfolio, but your business card reads, “David Airey, mad skillz at dezign”, you’re not really doing yourself justice.


    Nicely explained, and I’m glad it’s working out for you. Live and learn is very apt.

    Design Submit,

    Thanks for commenting, and best of luck in your self-employment.


    Making money from a hobby is certainly a goal to aspire to. Even before working in the field, for me, design is more than just a hobby. It’s a passion that I find very difficult to imagine living without.

  41. David Airey
    Sure, why not if you have foud a way, which brings you more customers and long time projects is that great, but on the end, your works & marketing have bring you on this stage and not how you have call yourself. I call my self simply an artist because i working with digital paintings but i could call my self also an freelancer and when i speak with an customer, he always look at the first stage on my works, image and my online presentation, everything else doesn’t really metter so much that he wouldn’t order some stuff by me if he love it…. Sure if i would be an self deployer, maybe i would have some customer more, but such customers, which looking so much on ” if you are self deployer,…..” doens’t even look at 1. point on quality, probably they looking just for some cheap stuff.

  42. And where are you in this hierarchy, David? ;)
    Of course, as usual this is a very good entry and you make very good points, but I will allow myself the freedom to say that it is practically our duty to educate our clients. I’ve been involved in many design processes, and I did manage to convince the clients to do it my way. The results spoke for themselves.

    I may seem easy, but if I have to put my name on a project, I expect full trust, or I don’t take it. Stubborn Mig features, what do you know? He, he.

    On a private note, David, when you have the time, I’d like to talk to you about something. Let me know.

  43. Tony’s client should’ve just bought products from here:

  44. I am going to have to read these comments another time (looks like an awesome discussion with tons of great ideas!), but I wanted to chip in. I can’t believe Tony’s client actually said that! I guess we as independent consultants need to learn to tell the difference between a client who wants a production artist (like Tony’s client) and a creative professional (what we all hope our client wants, our recommendations based on experience). I think even the title graphic designer has its issues. Some people view us as little more than artist who play in the computer, as we all know clients who have thought, if not actually said, “My 11 year old could’ve done that!”

  45. Totally agree. I had one client who was like that and I like your idea of calling yourself a contractor or something different instead of a freelancer…

  46. Mig,

    I completely agree that it’s part of a designers job to educate. A very important part too.

    Where am I in the hierarchy? I’ve always preferred a flat-level management system, where everyone’s on the same plane. Some people know more than others about particular things, and vice versa. We can learn something from everyone. Hope that doesn’t sound like a cop out. :)


    There are many great comments left here, and yep, there could be some limiting factors to ‘graphic designer’, mainly because so many people don’t understand what the job involves, like you say. That goes back to Mig’s point about educating our clients, although the main focus of this article is how we’re perceived before we get that chance to educate.


    Cheers for the comment. Anyone in the business for a decent length of time will uncover a similar client.

  47. I’ve always treated the term “Freelance” with respect, after all these people are making a living without the security of a regular employer. As a potential client, I would actually prefer to employ a freelance than an agency, for example. I’d prefer to pay for the quality of the work rather than pay for the preputaion or image, which some agencies seem to convey.


  48. I associate ‘freelance’ with my first encounter with the term – that of freelance photographers and writers that shop a portfolio to magazines, that pick and choose what they like, or commission work to specification.

    In either case, the implication is that the freelancer fills a useful niche – providing ‘filler’ material of a suitable composure and topic to complement what the customer is doing. ‘Freelance’ seemed, to me, to be creative in business tactics (paparazzi come to mind), but mostly technical rather than creative about the art.

    And it may be that others feel the same way. Tony seems to have found at least one customer used to setting the specs and expecting a technically competent response to those specs. That is, for that customer the role was ‘freelance’, and not ‘designer’.

    As for how universally the ‘technician’ baggage has to follow the label freelance, I imagine that varies. I think Tony’s real problem was starting the job before finding out what the customer actually wanted. Unsatisfied expectations were left dangling about the work. The ‘freelance’ title might have set the stage, but the wreck would surely have happened anyway.

  49. I think calling oneself a design consultant gets much more respect that to say you are a freelancer. But there are certain clients who will always think they know more no matter what you call yourself.

  50. I have to agree that presenting yourself as a freelancer can many times lead to problems. I had some similar issues before and this made me transform myself into a firm. I made all the paperwork and now, even if I am still the only one to work since the firm is young, I am not a freelancer anymore. And yeah, it really helped with the way my clients see me ..

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