Backgrounds: #FFFFFF vs. #000000

 By Shamus Oct 9, 2007 70 comments

When I re-did my theme last week several people lamented that I wasn’t going with light text on a black background. The complaint seems to be that black-on-white sites (like this one) are painful to read.

I found this interesting, because my experience is precisely the opposite: Light letters on a dark background are brutal on my eyes. After just one paragraph of that I’ll have horizontal lines burned into my vision when I look away. It seems like my eye notices that the presented image is mostly black, and dilates accordingly. The bright letters are then free to scorch the everlovin’ crap out of my optic nerve. Clicking through from a black page to a white page delivers a seizure-inducing burst of light.

Things to note about how I use my computer:

  1. I have a 19″ CRT monitor, with the screen refresh set to the maximum. (85Htz.)
  2. I have carefully placed the lights in this room so that I never get any reflective glare. If you replaced my screen with a mirror and sat in my chair, you wouldn’t be able to see a single light source or window in the reflection. (Glare is one of the major reasons I hated working in an office. Offices are perfect environments for maximizing screen glare, with a half dozen light sources bouncing off of each and every screen in the room. Brutal.)
  3. My room is a bit dim.

So I have several theories about people who prefer black pages:

  1. Perhaps they are using laptops or flat-screen monitors, and perhaps those screens work best with white-on-black. I don’t have enough time in front of laptops to judge.
  2. Maybe their monitor refresh rate is low. I find that anything under 70Htz, well, hurts when looking at all white. It’s like staring into a strobe. While low refresh rates are cruel in general, black backgrounds are less abusive than white in these sorts of setups.
  3. Maybe their monitor is smaller, and thus doesn’t dominate their vision the way larger monitors might.
  4. Perhaps they are in environments with a lot of glare? Maybe that glossy blob of light forever smeared across the upper left corner of the screen keeps the eye from acting like you’re staring into a dark hole.
  5. Maybe they are sensible types who use their computer in a well-lit room.
  6. Maybe they are just, like, different and stuff.

White on black just isn’t an option for this site, since I need to be able to read the thing without going blind. Still, I feel bad for people who struggle with white backgrounds. Those are by far the most common sort of site, and so the internet must be an uncomfortable place for them.

2020201070 comments? This post wasn't even all that interesting.


1 2

  1. maehara says:

    I use both on various parts of my little web-publishing empire, and generally I’d have to say that unless I’m doing something with a lot of images, I’d stick to black-on-white – makes the text stand out a lot better (to my eyes, anyway), and generally makes for a cleaner layout. Works great with LCD screens, too – I use a variety of flat panels between 13″ and 21″, depending on which home/work computer I’m on, and a white background has never caused any problems with the intensity of the light – if anything, white backgrounds on a CRT screen would probably cause me more problems. But that’s maybe just me.

    Where black / dark backgrounds really work well, though, is if you’re doing something with a lot of images – I find that a white background against a screenshot seems to cause problems with how I percieve the contrast of the image, and they come out as much clearer with a black background. You’re right about how pure white text can then be difficult, though, so I use off-white / light grey to work around that, along with a few other colours to break things up.

    Twenty-Sided’s mostly text, so black-on-white would seem a good choice. But then I’m very much not a web design guru, so these thoughts are served with a liberal dose of salt. :)

  2. Chargone says:

    well, i can tell you that in my case it’s at least partially that i’m ‘different’ :P

    have a light sensitivity, part of that being that i just need things dimmer [there's a whole lot of other things involved too, but that's the easiest bit to explain]

    .. doesn’t help that i got a window right behind the comp, and a monitor that doesn’t take up the entire room… so..

    yeah, actually your list of possible reasons includes several that are applicable.

    [on a random note, i have a Yellow light in here, not a white one. 'tis nifty.]

  3. wererogue says:

    For myself, I prefer a light on dark colour scheme – usually a light green (~#cfc) against a dark green (~#010 or #020). However, if I’m designing a page for other people to read, it’s usually dark on light.

  4. Mari says:

    Maybe there’s a color that is neither #FFFFFF nor #000000 that would reduce eye strain. Like I know there’s a variety of copy paper and a paper for book publishing that isn’t pure white but kind of an ever-so-slightly-yellowed white that supposedly is easier to read black text from and thus reduces eye strain.

  5. Chargone says:

    curse the lack of edit buttons and my forgetting points when posting.

    LCD screens are actually Nicer than CRT ones. the large expanse of white is less of an issue.

  6. JKPolk says:

    I don’t know how possible this is in wordpress, but I know that when I designed my site back in the day on PostNuke there was a dropdown option for multiple themes. Maybe you could just make an alternate theme with a couple colors swapped to please the dark-background crowd and present it as an option?

    Granted, I don’t know how long this would take nor how to implement using WordPress, so this could all just be idle prat.

  7. maehara says:

    JKPolk @ 6:
    WordPress can’t do theme-switching “out of the box”, but there is a plugin that adds the ability…

  8. QE says:

    I’m with Mari: literal black and white aren’t an ideal combination regardless of which way around you put them. Often choosing the background then using a grey a few grades in from the opposite for text works quite nicely.

  9. Ozy says:

    You really should see how you respond to this sort of thing in a properly lit room. I mean, the idea that one should view monitors in a well-lit room is pretty much universal knowledge that very few people put into practice as often as they should. Your brain judges the appropriate dilation or contraction of one’s pupils by the overall luminosity of your entire field of vision, not by the luminosity of the brightest point. This is why looking at a candle flame in dimly lit room is usually unpleasant. The same principle applies to bright letters on a dark screen in a dark room. If, on the other hand, the room is well lit, your pupils will not overly dilate, white letters will not seem overly bright, and you shouldn’t have a problem.

  10. Chargone says:

    now there’s a point. i use black and a silver of some sort when possible, rather than black and white.

    *thinks*

    white probably Would be as bad, or worse, as text on black…

  11. Gary says:

    How about providing alternative style sheets (http://www.w3.org/Style/Examples/007/alternatives) though I get that most browsers don’t seem to remember these cross session or sometimes even during the same session on different pages of the site.

  12. maehara says:

    Hmmm. Just noticed that the strapline’s now giving us a random quote, instead of just the old “Geek culture ephemera” line.

    “You just rolled a 1 on your saving throw versus Dork”. Cheek. :)

  13. Ozy says:

    Oh yeah, and using black would save energy.

  14. Phlux says:

    For reading websites I generally dislike white on black as a design aesthetic. On the other hand, if I’m working in a terminal console, or playing a text-based game (yes I still play one now and then) I almost universally prefer a black background with light green text.

    If I have two terminals open I’ll sometimes change the text one one to green on black and the other light-purple on black. Helps me from confusing the two systems, especially if I’m in the same application on both.

  15. M says:

    Apparently, on CRT monitors bright backgrounds can use a lot more power than dark ones do. LCD monitors have their backlights always turned on, though, even with a completely black page.

  16. Rhea says:

    White text on a black background is very, very difficult for me to read. I usually end up selecting it so that I can read it better. I use an LCD monitor.

    Now, I think that a grey or neutral colored backgrounds can work well with lighter texts… but the light background dark text combination is still better.

  17. Mike says:

    Firefox users can experiment with the contents of the file userContent.css to customize the look of any website. Any setting in CSS can be overridden.

  18. gedece says:

    I find the black on light blue answers a lot easier on my eyes than the black on white. My refresh rate is at 80 Hz, so I see no flicker, still the whiteness stands out.

    But I agree with you, white on black is harder on the eyes. I don’t have problems reading it, but after reading one, quen I switch tabs on Firefox, and find some white backgrounds, my eyes hurt like crazy. I dont’ have the same problem going the other way, though.

  19. Jeysie says:

    I have a 17″ CRT monitor running 1024×768 at 85Hz in a decently-lit room, and I vastly prefer light text on a dark background: I’ve even switched Windows itself to having a light-on-dark scheme. Whenever I have to read lots of sites with light backgrounds I get eye fatigue, especially if they’re stark white or similarly brightly colored backgrounds.

    I will note that I have bad eyes: My focus/depth perception is off because I’m near-sighted in one eye and astigmatic in both.

    Hope that helps somewhat.

  20. ZzzzSleep says:

    Opera (the browser) allows users to toggle assorted style sheets, so if somebody REALLY wants white text on a black background all they need to do is go to “User Mode ‘High Contrast (W/B)’” Firefox probably has an extension that allows similar behaviour.

  21. Amanda says:

    Okay, first off, what happened to the comment counter? Is it just missing today or is it gone forever?

    I am also light sensitive. I prefer a dark or shaded background with black letters, sort of like your comment boxes that are blue with black letters. I agree with you a black screen with white letters is worse for me than a white screen and black letters.

    When I am changing the look of my blog I try to stick with a dark background.

  22. thebigkr says:

    ok, so here’s what you do. find a common ground. grey-on-grey. that way, noone can complain, ’cause NOONE, not even yourself, can see what you’re typing!

  23. Cat Skyfire says:

    Don’t most people have the option of telling their browser how they’d like things to show? Assuming that a site is using mostly ‘browser default’ it would work.

  24. roxysteve says:

    [Shamus] Speaking only for myself, the issue of whether to use a light background with dark characters on it or the other way round boils down to glare.

    I find a page of white so blinding I cannot work with it for long. Making the bright component the smaller part helps a lot, though I personally find yellow characters on black the best overall for contrast.

    There is also an age-related issue at work now I think of it. The vitreous humor in my eyes has begun to harden in places (as it will over time with anyone’s eyes so laff while you can but you will soon be joining me in visual heck) and I percieve the hard patches as dark “floaters” in front of me. Large fields of bright backgrounds such as an all-white screen, all-white walls, the sky or (most awkwardly) the blue liner of my swimming pool will cause me to notice the spots and annoy the hell out of me. (They can have me sweeping the water of the pool for non-existant bits of dirt with the skimmer, for example).

    I tend to engineer such backgrounds out of any place that I can.

    But for small areas like a computer screen it is mostly the glare.

    Steve.

  25. roxysteve says:

    [Shamus] While I remember, thank you for making the print larger. It helps reduce the glare effect of the white background quite a bit, and stops me squinting so much that I get mistaken for Bill, a chinese coleague.

    Steve.

  26. asterismW says:

    Well, I for one was infinitely relieved that you didn’t do light on dark. That drives me crazy, and seems a lot harder to read. Interestingly enough, I fit almost every “qualifier” you have for people who might like light on dark, but I prefer the way you have it.

  27. I have an LCD monitor set to 75Htz in a fairly dark room. I keep the brightness turned way down, because after a while the light starts to fry my optic nerve. And I’m one who can’t read light colored text on a black background! Makes me see double. What’s odd is that this is a recent development – the sensitivity to white-on-black has happened just in the last few years. I have no idea if it’s age related, or what. For years my own website was white on black. But now I can’t stand it.

  28. Mordaedil says:

    I have a 19″ LCD monitor at resolution 1280×1024. Refresh rate is 72hz (due to a bug I can’t have the optimal 75hz, thanks a lot, nVidia)

    I find that my room is often dark or dim, and if I look at pure white in this condition, it burns my eyes. I tend to think sunlight has a lot to do with preference of white or black backgrounds. And my personal website (above) displays the contrast to this site.

    In more ways than one.

  29. scragar says:

    personaly I built a piece of greasemonkey that allow dynamic switching of styles to improve contrast, using it I can set universal background colour, foreground colour and also use it to differentiate between different tags(eg. div, span, p, a etc). it works well, and really helps out with sites that offer no method of changing from white on black to black on white via an alternate stylesheet or such. the only problem with my code is it’s excessive use of cookies to monitor settings across pages.

  30. Avaz says:

    Coming from a designing background, there is actually a law of typography that states that black text on a white background is the most easily legible and clearest to read. Paraphrasing, of course. So I applaud the use of black on white here at this site, and…

    …And I’m sure I had a prolific ending to that sentence, but it escapes me now. :S

  31. Ozy says:

    roxysteve: While I remember, thank you for making the print larger.

    Do you use Firefox? If you do, hold down Ctrl and scroll the mouse wheel up or down.

    Now you are no longer an ignorant slave to the tyrannically predetermined text sizes imposed by webmasters. Now, you forge your own destiny.

  32. Dan says:

    What? I thought this WAS a black background…albeit with green text.

    Just for reference, I’m browsing from my Apple IIe.

  33. SimeSublime says:

    Sorry to change the topic, but I noticed in your post you abbreviated Hertz to Htz. I’m used to it being Hz, and wondered if Htz was a personal choice, or if it’s an American thing?

  34. JKPolk says:

    No, see, the t is right next to the z. Obviously he bumped itz when he went to type Hz… simple mistzake

  35. Shamus says:

    On Htz vs. Hz:

    If I did it wrong, it’s an ignorance thing. I just typed Htz and it looked right to me, so I went with it.

  36. MOM says:

    How about orange on black. Noone has tried that for text have they?

  37. Ryan says:

    Whoa, whoa, whoa — WHAT? People are complaining about dark text?!?

    As a usability professional with a Ph.D. in human factors who works for a major software company, I can tell you that you’ve made the right decision with dark text on light background. (I’ve actually researched this first-hand.) It is much easier, in general, for people to read onscreen this way.

    Just goes to show that “common consensus” isn’t always the right thing to do.

  38. Matt says:

    I find that bright white is painful to read after a while. Luckily somewhere along the way I found Nocturne, an app for mac that can invert the color palette, or just do black and white. If my eyes are tired and I need to keep using the computer, I’ll fire that up and notice an immediate improvement. As long as I don’t need to look at pictures, it works just fine. (though the negative images can be very cool)

    I think its already been said, but a pale color that is slightly less bright than bright white is preferable.

    Oh, and I appreciate the larger font as well, much more readable.

  39. roxysteve says:

    Ryan:
    Whoa, whoa, whoa — WHAT? People are complaining about dark text?!?

    As a usability professional with a Ph.D. in human factors who works for a major software company, I can tell you that you’ve made the right decision with dark text on light background. (I’ve actually researched this first-hand.) It is much easier, in general, for people to read onscreen this way.

    And yet people are telling you otherwise.

    Research trumps actual feedback I guess.

    I have no PhD, but I was designing human/computer interfaces for high-volume data entry systems in the manufacturing industry before most people here had graduated high school, and know a bit about it. The technology changes, the issues don’t. Ever.

    If I were seriously engaged in the “which way is better” debate and feeling like a frank exchange of views I might suggest looking at how the military, who ask people to look at displays for long periods of time, want those people to stay alert and to notice stuff on those displays (and not get it wrong) like to decide the issue.

    I might anticipate a brewing “well why is paper white then?” line of counter-attack by pointing out that the most widely available, affordable and durable inks were traditionally based on finely divided soot (aka “lampblack”) and that to get the contrast up for readability under kerosene and candlelight the choice of what to do was rather constrained as a result.

    I might go further and point out that white-white paper is a relatively recent innovation. I might also point out that the luminosity of white paper under artificaial light can be controlled (by reducing the incident light) and that few people read paper documents under conditions that replicate the arc-light brilliance of white coming out of a modern computer display.

    Research or no research, black on white is a sub-optimal choice from my standpoint. I said why in post #24. I have no expectation or desire for the site to be altered in any way shape or form to accomodate that view, mostly because I spend so little time actually looking at it in any given day and partly because I can intervene in the process like Matt does if it gets too much.

    I do take exception to having my (solicited) views dismissed because of this “research” though.

    Does it show?

    Bo)

    Steve. BSc*.

    * Bombay School of Cookery.

  40. roxysteve says:

    Black on pale blue is better, though. And so was black on brownish-yellow in the Old Days (two weeks ago).

    Steve.

  41. Matt says:

    Our company has two Powerpoint ™ templates – black on white and white on dark blue. Almost universally, the former is preferred if printing out slides (what luddites do this, anyway?) while the latter seems much better recieved for on-screen presentations.

    I addition, our work is involved with design of user interfaces for systems in 24/7 usage – the feedback we have from the system users is that dark backgrounds with light foregrounds causes them much less eye strain – and they tend to work in dimmed environments.

  42. Shamus says:

    We’ve got people with lots of experience on both sides of this quasi-debate. Allow me to jump in and do the weasel thing: “Everyone’s right”.

    I can think of other contexts where I prefer white-on-black. One of the things I was hoping to get from this was enough responses that I might be able to discern what the real deciding factor is. In some cases black is FAR better. In some cases white is CLEARLY better. There are a tremendous number of variables in play here, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to sort it out:

    * Screen resolution
    * Physical screen size
    * Screen DPI (From previous two)
    * Font (Big chunky Monospaced console or whispy sans serif?)
    * Room lighting
    * Glare
    * Screen type (LCD or CRT)
    * Refresh rate
    * Application (Am I looking away from the screen often, or just reading continual on-screen text?)

    I’m confident that if you fiddle with these variables you can come up with situations where a great majority people will prefer one color over the other.

  43. Shamus says:

    Addendum: By “confident” I mean, “I would like to be able to prove my half-assed hypothesis but it’s like, complicated and stuff.”

  44. John Lopez says:

    I hate white text on black with a hatred that won’t be quelled until I have adjusted my local Firefox CSS to override it on any site that uses it… or I just ignore the site if it doesn’t have *critical* information on it.

    For those who believe that white text on black is the way to go, please point me to the reams of black paper and white ink that are in use for anything other than novelty and advertising purposes.

  45. Thad says:

    For those that want white text on a black background: would you prefer to read a book that way?

  46. onosson says:

    I like the whole layout, Shamus, ’tis good.

    I ONLY have a laptop (well, two, actually). When lots of white gets to hurtin’ my eyes, which happens often, I just *dim the screen*, a simple two-key operation on most laptops, also available on most CRT and flat-screens, via the buttons below the screen. This along with dynamically adjusting text-size, eliminates any potential eyestrain!

    I would think that would work for most people!

    P.S. I recently switched to Opera from Firefox, as I find it’s ability to adjust text and zoom *the entire page* to be far superior, and these are very important features for me. Any Firefox users who like to do the same might want to give Opera a second look.

  47. Blurr says:

    White on black is hard to read. However, I find that silver-ish on black is very easy to read.

  48. Doug Sundseth says:

    I’m working on a 21″ LCD at 1600 x 1200 in a brightly lit office (hey, it’s lunchtime), and I strongly prefer black text on white background. Like SDB, white letters give me halo effects and dramatically reduce readability.

    Also, I find that reflections are much worse with a black background than with a white background.

    Finally,if you care about the research, you might want to take a look here:

    http://hubel.sfasu.edu/research/survreslts.html

  49. Davey says:

    If you’re using Firefox you might look into Greasemonkey and the invert color script.

  50. Schmidt says:

    Shamus,
    I am a follower of Black background on White text. That said, I suppose it’s a matter of preference, physiology, or reading hours upon hours on the computer. Eyestrain is never fun.

    I would only hope you include a button to negatize your pages, as my attempts to overwrite your color choices in the firefox preferences leave me with light blue boxes with white text on the odd replies. Now that hurts.

    In any event, thank you for your time.

    With Regards,
    Schmidt

  51. Schmidt says:

    Thad:
    The difference from reading a book and reading from a screen is that a book does not emit light.

    In comparison, try reading a book with a flashlight beaming from behind it. While admittedly not that bad, it is a more appropriate analogy.

    I apologize, I’m being silly.

    Schmidt

  52. SteveDJ says:

    Maybe it comes from people that are used to reading a newspaper or magazine – which have always been black text on white paper. (Oh, imagine the stains on your fingers if it were the other way around in print media… :D )

  53. SteveDJ says:

    Doh! Now that I’ve posted, I’m going back and seeing in the other comments that the idea of print media has already been introduced. Oh well. :)

  54. Mr. Son says:

    Black on white works for me.

    What hurts is that there’s so little to break the white up, other than text. More substantial post headers in a gentle color would help my eyes a lot. Otherwise, to me, it’s just a giant expanse of white covered in text.

  55. Winter says:

    My monitor is 24 million inches wide and as bright as the sun. Huge swaths of white space burn like staring up at noon time.

    That said, i’m mostly fine with either way.

  56. Rhykker says:

    Generally, I never comment without reading every post, but today I just don’t have the time. So I’m posting this in the off-chance that no one else has.

    We, as people, are generally accustomed to reading from books – black text on a white background – so white text on a black background seems odd or even uncomfortable at first.

    However, what we seem to forget is that a piece of paper reflects light, whereas a screen emits light.

    Maddox nailed the issue:

    “I’ve chosen a black background for most of my text because it’s easier on the eyes than staring at a white screen. Think about it: your monitor is not a piece of paper, no matter how hard you try to make it one. Staring at a white background while you read is like staring at a light bulb (don’t believe me? Try turning off the lights next time you use a word processor). Would you stare at a light bulb for hours at a time? Not if you want to keep your vision.”

    The white portions of your screen are those that are emitting the greatest amount of light – the black portions are emitting none. Each little white pixel is a tiny light bulb at which you are staring.

    But Shamus, you make a good point in saying that white text with a black background is somewhat painful as well – because of the extreme contrast. Sites that pull off a black background well do not actually use white text – they use grey text (or a dull color).

    I much prefer non-white backgrounds (not necessarily black, but pretty much any dull color or shade). As I am typing this up on the blaring white screen of Microsoft Word, I minimize to my dark desktop (a pic of the cosmos) and I *feel* my eyes relax.

  57. Jeff says:

    I remember the Calvin and Hobbes dude once commented that the eye is naturally lazy and attracted to black…

    I’ve entirely forgotten my point now. Nifty factoid, though.

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind a slightly off-white background with black text on it, but maybe I’m just odd.

  58. dragonbane says:

    Definitely dark text on light background is better, HOWEVER – as others have said, making the background stark white just gets painful. I greatly prefer a parchment, powder blue or light grey background under my black text.

  59. Gelatinous Cube says:

    Didn’t read much here, but I learned a few weeks ago that a dark background should be used when the ambient lightning is dark. So if you’re sitting in a dark room, with your curtains closed and no lights on you should use dark background.

  60. Shamus,

    I find it hilarious that we both decided to post on this this topic yesterday. Check out my post that pretty much says the same thing. I even put it up to a vote. My readers think that dark on light is better (currently 20 to 8 votes).

    It’s really an interesting question though. There are usability advocates on both sides that argue their choice is better.

    For example Wichita University did a study with senior citizens and found out that dark text on light background was easier to read (subjects would finish reading it faster).

    On the other hand Lighthouse International advocates light on dark because of the contrast and they claim to have studies that support that choice too.

    So it really is a tossup – and seems to be a matter of preference more than anything. Some people prefer dark on light, while others swear by light on dark. And the only way to please both of these groups is… I guess, to have two alternative css style sheets.

  61. Lo'oris says:

    I dearly hate white backgrounds, and I’m not confortable with black ones too.

    What I think it’s best it’s either white text on grey background (like on my site) or black text on pastel background (such as #B4D28C).

    I use a bookmarklet to kill the white backgrounds, and when it doesn’t work I usually renounce to read the page.

    https://www.squarefree.com/bookmarklets/zap.html
    I’ve also modified it to fit greasemonkey, but it doesn’t work very well there (if someone could help send me an email, I’d appreciate :).

  62. This is one of those issues where personal mileage, preference, bias, eyesight, and tech is going to create a multitude of answers. None of them will be universally right.

    (1) Based on numerous studies I’ve seen over the years, it is almost without question that light text on a dark background has more clarity than dark text on a light background. (As measured by accuracy in reading.)

    The old fogeys among us may remember when word processing programs defaulted to a white-on-blue scheme. This was due to research showing that to be a particularly effective contrast level resulting in high levels of clarity and accurate reading.

    (2) Sensitivity to CRT light levels will shift people’s comfort level while reading in one direction or another. Conversely, the quality of an LCD monitor will also affect people’s comfort levels. (Early LCDs had a lot of issues with blacks, for example.)

    (3) Dark text on a light background has been traditionally used in publishing because the technology is ink-on-paper: You get more accurate and cheaper results with less ink, thus black-on-white. Even with modern printing techniques, trying to lay down white-on-black will often result in blurred letters.

    (4) Because black-on-white is traditional and most people learn to read black-on-white text, familiarity may cause black-on-white text to be easier to read than other combinations.

    So, like I say, there’s no right answer here. Personaly, I use a white-on-black scheme for my webpage. I consider it visually striking and I’ve found that I can read it a lot longer than I can white-on-black without suffering eye-strain.

    Thus, I will frequently highlight what I’m reading on white-on-black layouts (often without thinking about it — the habit developed and it was only many years later that I realized why I was doing it). I figure those who don’t like black-on-white can do the same thing with my pages.

    Justin Alexander
    http://www.thealexandrian.net

  63. Christian Groff says:

    Yeah, I’m with you, Shamus. I hate dark backgrounds on web sites(except for Serebii.net, which is okay as I’ve been reading it for years). It just doesn’t feel right.

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