AIGA Design Fiction Keynote 2022AIGA Design Fiction Keynote 2022
AIGA Design Fiction Keynote 2022
2022 AIGA National Conference, Seattle, WA
Keynote presentation by Julian Bleecker at AIGA 2022
Keynote presentation at AIGA 2022

Project Summary

I was asked to deliver a Keynote presentation at the 2022 AIGA National Conference. The presentation was a discussion of Design Fiction and it's 'Why?'. Key takeaways from the presentation were: Design fiction uses prototypes and imaginary objects to spark curiosity and conversations about possible futures; Examples like the Star Trek manual and Ikea catalog show how design fiction makes the future feel real and present; Design fiction exercises imagination and gets people thinking about the future consequences of new innovations; Organizations could use design fiction to explore strategic futures and prepare for coming societal and technological shifts.

Client: AIGA

Team: Near Future Laboratory

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Project Year: 2022

Project Duration: 1 Week

Published On: Apr 11, 2024, 22:30:10 PDT

Updated On: Apr 11, 2024, 22:30:10 PDT

Written By: Julian Bleecker

The Project

I was asked to deliver a Keynote presentation at the 2022 AIGA National Conference. The presentation was a discussion of Design Fiction and it's 'Why?'.

The Outcomes

Unexpectedly, this talk was very warmly received to the degree that I felt motivated to expand upon it in a long essay, which eventually became my book 'It's Time To Imagine Harder': the 'Why?' of Design Fiction. In the talk itself, I make the case that Design Fiction - the prototyping of artifacts from possible futures - can spark conversations and imagination about potential futures and coming societal shifts. Design Fiction is as much the artifact as it is The Process to assess societal shifts, synthesize insights, imagine the possible implications, and create the material cultural representations thereof. Particularly in chaotic, dynamic and kinetic marketplaces, having strategic conversations and preparations early on can only benefit decision makers.
Keynote presentation by Julian Bleecker at AIGA 2022
Keynote presentation at AIGA 2022

This was a discussion of how Design Fiction and prototyping possible futures through everyday objects can spark imagination and open up conversations. Examples like the Star Trek technical manual, cereal box exploring edible insects, and fictional Geneva transportation map make a compelling case for the way Design Fiction makes people think about potential futures in a tangible way.

One of the points I hoped to convey was to make the case that Design Fiction is a cost-effective way for a large organization to get ahead of coming societal and technological changes as part of its strategy work. Prototyping future scenarios like suggested in some of the examples in the keynote would allow an organization to imagine how their business could be impacted or transformed in the future. Particularly in chaotic, dynamic and kinetic marketplaces, having strategic conversations and preparations early on can only benefit decision makers.

While an investment in Design Fiction workshops and artifacts may seem non-essential, it pays off by giving the organization a competitive edge in visualizing and planning for the future. Workshopping a fictional city map to think about Urban Futures, or consumer catalog demonstrating possible future products makes abstract notions of the future feel concrete.

Congratulations, Louise. I think it was so important that you and Brian were talking about how the past and rethinking our past helps us reframe and rethink how we want to live in the future.
And I don't think there's anybody better to talk about the future than our next speaker, Julian Bleecker.
He's a futures designer, product innovator, engineer, entrepreneur, podcast host, and creative team leader. He's also really, really smart. He has a PhD in the history of consciousness from UC Santa Cruz, an MS in engineering from the University of Washington, and a B's in electrical engineering from Cornell University.
So he's got like, range. He developed the practice of design fiction. This is the guy that developed design fiction, which he outlined in a manifesto in 2008 titled a short essay on design fiction, and later described in depth in the book the Manual of Design Fiction. Design fiction is now employed throughout many foresight, insight, innovation, agencies, and teams. And he divides his time between his product brand, Omada, and his design studio, the near future laboratory. Please join me in welcoming Julian Bleecker.
I always knew Debbie and I would meet again. I just didn't know it would be in a Sheridan ballroom.
The fundamental predicament of the creative consciousness is that we find ourselves perpetually caught in this conflict between imagination and structure.
Imagination wants to feel. It wants to dream.
Structure looks for clarity. It looks for organization. It looks for repeatability. It looks for regularity. It looks for efficiency.
So what am I talking about?
Let me start with an example.
This thing, this is a Star Trek communicator.
When I was about six or seven, this was it. This was the world. I didn't know what that feeling was that I had, but I had it. Every Thursday at 06:00 p.m. On channel eleven, over the air television. For those of you who remember what, that was a little bit staticky.
And there was something that.
There was a feeling that was evoked when I watched this show. There was something that. It was just an it.
It was an ineffable thing. It felt real to me. It felt like a path.
It was that moment when I look back where I started figuring out something about, this is part of my life.
I want this to be the it of my life. I had no idea what that meant, but it was a feeling. And then my father took my brother and I to a Star Trek invention in New York City.
I still have the program. I don't know how it lasted so long.
And in the trades area where people were selling different memorabilia and paraphernalia and so forth. I came across this, and my mind just exploded.
What is this?
When I watched the show, I saw a prop. And I knew enough about television to know that that's just a prop. These are actors. They're involved in a production. They're telling a story, this exquisitely melodramatic adventure in space.
But when I saw this, it felt like something else. This felt like something that lived in a world. It had this way of representing a world, this kind of visual design language that, to me, signals imminent possibility. It was as if this thing existed. It's something that's made. It's manufactured. It's something that is assembled.
Look, they call outs to screws. There's specifications. There's an outline for something that looks like a nine volt battery. I know what that is. That exists in this world, the world that I'm in. This isn't the future. Where is this thing coming from? It looked like it came from a place like this, where people do the work of drawing and specifying, mechanical engineering work, people with protractors, very organized.
This is structure right here. These are desks. People align. They're actually making something that's manufactured, that will be used in the world. It will come into existence. People's lives might depend on something that is developed here. It has a certain exactitude. This isn't a world of dreams. This world here is a world of efficiency. It's a world where real things matter.
It turns out that the fellow who made this, a guy named Franz Josef, he was one of those draftsmen sitting at those tables. He was an engineer, a draftsman working at General Dynamics, a company that still exists. This was in the mid 20th century. So he was doing this kind of work day in and day out. He was making specifications that look like this. He was doing things of consequence. And so I began to wonder, why would someone who does this day in and day out, tirelessly, laboriously, doing these exacting diagrams before Cad? If you make a mistake, start over.
At some point, it just felt like it must be like a real labor. So why would he come home after work and decide he's going to start doing the same thing, the same kind of work, for something that doesn't exist at all, for an entirely fictional universe? Where does that energy come from?
What kind of creative consciousness actually will spend the time on nights and weekends to do a brand book for something that doesn't exist, a television show outside of the universe of the production? This wasn't commissioned. He did it on his own time, under his own inspiration, filling his time, letting his imagination stretch itself into this world that clearly he enjoyed.
He luxuriated in it. I mean, colorways, typography, font specifications, clear space. Who does that? It wasn't commissioned from Paramount. There was no payday at the end of this. He did it because his imagination was feeling into the kinds of structure that he understood, the kinds of structures in the world that he wanted to make, he wanted to produce, he wanted to dream into it. And the way he felt he could do it was with the techniques and tools that he normally uses. If he was an artist, it might be a canvas.
If he was a graphic designer, it might be some illustrations, but he was a mechanical engineer. He knew this form of structure and look, it had real impact. New York Times bestseller. Any author would love to get on this. He did it by accident. He felt into something that clearly touched many, many people. In fact, anecdotal evidence is that this book appearing on the New York Times bestseller list, was what convinced the Paramount executives to continue production of the series. They were ready to shit can it. They just didn't know that there were fans out there. This is before data analytics.
They're looking at it through their own eyes. But when they found out that there was hundreds of thousands of people around the world who were going to conventions, who were buying this book, bumping it up in the New York Times best seller list, you bet. Structure is going to say, something's going on here. I don't understand it, but something's going on. So what are we to make of all this? What was Franz Joseph doing, this kind of humble engineer draftsman, creating this thing that gets on the New York Times bestseller list 46 years later, it's still being printed. There are variations of it for most of the tent pole franchises of Star Trek.
What the heck was going on? How did that happen?
Well, my take on this is it's a bit like archaeology. So we think about what archaeologists do. They do this. They dig into the past. They root around to try to make sense of the worlds that existed before us. They explore old settlements, they excavate things that look like this, and they have this expression on their face that inquisitive nature. This is the look of sense making. This is the look of making meaning of something.
This is a fragment, and he's going to tell a story about a world that existed, one that the object itself can't tell a story, but he can interpret it. He can look at it and examine its materiality. Is it iron? Is it wood? Is it a bit of clay? Pottery? What was standing next to it when they did the excavation? What does this thing tell us about the worlds that existed before us? What does it tell us about their gods, their religions, the rules they obeyed, the consequences if they didn't obey them? What does it tell us about the ways in which they traded their means of exchange, the wars they fought, the wars they lost, how they listened to their leaders, how their leaders became leaders? What were their structures for the social integration? How were they organized?
All these things were a little material object. No stories, no narratives, no books to explain it. Interpretation and sense making goes through a material object, and that's the past. That's how we look at the past, where we don't have that available evidence. We try to find it, and we try to make meaning so that we can then understand our position and the history. We can understand ourselves as culture, with the continuity that leads to this moment in the past. And I see what Franz Joseph did as something very analogous. It's like an archaeology of the future from the future. It's as if he went there, rooted around a bit, found this thing, oh, my goodness. This technical manual. I must bring this back. And that was his form of doing future archaeology.
Parenthetically, the completeness of that technical manual is such that there's a letter in the front of it that explains that knits it to the actual Star Trek show and refers to an episode in the show they time travel back, very cheesy episode. And that when they did that time travel back, this information was accidentally transmitted. And that's why we have it, because the question will come up, well, where did this come from?
And they closed that world up in this really lovely, lovely way. And this is what I call design fiction. So it's the creation of tangible prototypes, of the material, cultural artifacts of possible near futures. It's a way of looking into the future and imagining into the future, and doing it through the practice of design to represent those worlds, not through science fiction, but that translation process that design is able to do, where we take our imagination and translate it into material form. So let me give you some examples of what this looks like.
So in the world of doing future studies, oftentimes, or trends analysis, oftentimes, what we do is we gather a ton of material about a particular topic. There's a lot of research that goes on expert interviews, maybe we do panels with a group of consumers. We have all this material that we then try to consolidate and put in the form of that one report. So someone in structure, the head of an organization, says, tell me about the future. I want to understand the implications for the decisions I need to make today so I can ensure my success tomorrow. And there are lots of organizations and agencies that do that for big bucks.
And at the end of it, you get this big three ring binder. Maybe it's a PDF, and you try to make sense. What does all this mean? And it's a synthesis, but it's a synthesis in a form that is really amenable to structure. And that is like a lot, a lot of pros, a lot of text. And how do you feel through text? How do you get this other sense of what the future might be through text? What design fiction does is it might take that same bit of material, it will synthesize it, but rather than representing it in this textual form, it will represent it in a design form. Let's say all that material is about the future of breakfast cereal.
One of my favorite topics, design fiction, is going to represent that in the form of a box of cereal. So we're going to take those insights, all those trends and those implications, and decant them into this designed object, something that maybe very many of you might get involved in. You might be working with a brand that is looking for a new face for its breakfast cereal, and that's the work that you do. You try to imagine what that world, what this breakfast cereal might look like based on the brand voice, the character of the brand, of course, all the color and the fonts and the typography.
And you try to represent it and show it to them. Here are three different ways in which we can represent your breakfast cereal. Design fiction does a very similar thing, only it's moving from the future, it looks into the future. Where do those trends point to? So some of those trends might indicate that, I don't know, insects are now a source of protein, and they do. This is part of the trend analysis for the future of protein source. So how do you represent that? It seems to me that it's more compelling, it's more vivid. It's something that you can really kind of luxuriate into open conversations about.
People ask questions. Wait, what do you mean? Organic cricket flour? What the hell? And when people start asking those questions, then you have a real collaboration between structure and imagination, because you can enter into a dialogue. You can start unpacking all that information. You can start feeling into what this future might be like. Here's another example. We've done a number of projects with IkeA so canonical brand that represents for many people, what home life is. IkeA does a very large research study called the life at home report. And we'll take the life at home report, look at the trends, look at the things that people are saying about their concerns and their desires and their ambitions about their life at home, and then translate that into the form of the Ikea catalog. So many of you might be involved in doing product catalog design and that kind of work. And oftentimes you're taking the past and kind of representing it in this new form. What we do is we go into the future and try to imagine what the future of a particular product line might look like, and then represent that in this particular archetype, and it becomes a way in which people can kind of read into it. It's particularly effective if you just kind of present it to someone.
You don't tell a whole story about how you do it. It's just sitting there in someone's kitchen. And they begin to wonder, I think, very much in the same way I began to wonder when I saw that communicator schematic. Wait, what? What's going on here? And you want to open up that moment? You want people to say, wait, what's going on here? I don't get it. I refer to it as the double take moment, where people are beginning to open up and open up to the possibility of wondering about what this future might look like. There might be something going on in the bathroom. Who knows what the future of toiletries might be? And not just the products themselves, but the means of transaction. Is shampoo now a subscription service, perhaps with the different ways in which we are monitoring our biology, it's all individually tuned to us. You can represent those things without sounding spectacular, without doing a science fiction film, just in a normal, mundane, ordinary, everyday kind of way, as if it actually exists in the world. Home gardening became a big thing in their last life at home report, because a lot of people, during the pandemic, started growing their own food. So what does that begin to look like in the Ikea mode in the future? Do we have these home gardening rigs of some description?
And then do you want to talk about it in these kind of, like, technical terms, or do you want to represent it again as if it exists in the world? As if it's really a thing? And that's precisely what IkeA did to open that conversation internally. Here's another project that we did. So the city of Geneva asked us a simple question. Hey, what's going to be like here, when we have ubiquitous autonomous vehicles and multiple forms of rideshare and so forth. Now, we could have done a bunch of desk research, kind of assembled it, produced a report, maybe like a 30 page PowerPoint. They would have done something with it, maybe emailed it around so people could ignore it. Instead, what we did is we created this map. This is a tourist map that you might find when you arrive at the Geneva airport. And when you start reading the layers of meaning in it, you start unearthing this idea of what it could be like if a slightly medieval city like Geneva had all these different modalities of transportation. So you begin to see that there are certain areas where the transportation works, some areas where it doesn't, just because of the nature of the COVID and satellite signals don't get through. And then when you go a layer deeper, when you study the archetype, in this case of a tourist map, you begin to see all these other details that you can represent how the future might exhibit itself.
So it's a little bit difficult to see, but in the bottom left, there's a barcode. And that barcode says, place near vehicle in order to activate. So you imagine in this world, this is the mode in which you actually activate the autonomous vehicle that perhaps you rented. You can advertise for things that might be adjacent to the question at all, to just signal some aspect of the world that has evolved new kinds of jobs that might exist in that world. So there's still this question, like, why design fiction? And to my original point, it seems to me that sadly, we've lost our ability to imagine habitable futures. It seems to me that, to paraphrase Mark Fisher, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a more habitable future world. And that concerns me especially because when I think about the imagination, it's this incredible evolutionary, existentially vital capability that we have that exists in this vascularized piece of meat that's sitting on our heads, and we've really lost the ability to tap into it. And I wonder why we're not taught imagination. Why is there no AP imagination in our primary and secondary schools?
How come I don't have imagination with Mister Mackey in fifth period? Or, hey, I can't go out to that party with you tonight. We have a cross county competition in imagination with the Rossmore Academy. We really want to study up for it. Imagination is pushed to the side, probably around fifth or 6th grade, when we're encouraged to just get on the rails, get on a path. And I find that incredibly discouraging. And so to that point, a bunch of us got together and we wrote a book.
It's a manual of design fiction called, conveniently, the manual of design fiction. And we wrote this because I want to bring back this ability, this thing that Franz Joseph taught me, which was the power of just kind of finding the way to bring imagination to structure, to bring our ability to think about new, possible future worlds and do it in a way that is a collaboration with structure so that we can get the worlds that we want and dream our dreams. Not just Elon's dreams, not just Sergey's dreams, not just whatever wacky political figure is in our face. Not their dreams, but our dreams. Thank you.
He didn't disappoint, did he? Wasn't that amazing? Let's give another hand to Gillian bleak. Thank you. I was so intrigued by what you just said about a class in imagination, and I think that one takeaway for all the educators here, why not create a class, a course on imagination? Such a wonderful idea. I'm going to do it. I love the idea. So, first question, very importantly, that Star Trek communicator you showed at the front, do you own that? Do you have one interesting story? The one that I have was one that a friend of mine, an amazing industrial designer named Andrew Gautrell, he actually made a bunch of communicators when we were both at Nokia in this advanced design team. And they actually have a phone in them. So they actually work as a phone. It's a very precious thing. He just made an edition of about, I think, six or seven. Wow. Yeah. He's a Star Trek fan, clearly. Who isn't? What Star Trek convention did you go to? What year do you remember? I don't remember the year, but I remember Nicole Nichols gave one of the talks, so she played the tenant of her. Of course, I'm a big trekkie as well. My claim to fame and my trekdom is a photo with my nephew and William Shatner. Oh, man. I know, I know, I know. Is everybody jealous? I think he just wrote it. He just came out with a new book. I didn't know that. I think I heard him on the radio talking about it. Yeah, you talk about Franz Joseph and creating his sort of idea about creating things of consequence. How do we, how do you define what is consequential? I think for me, it's something that activates you in a way that forces, almost compels you to kind of question and wonder about the object, the thing that brings about that kind of inquisitive look and to some earlier discussions today about the power of wit. Oftentimes I'm drawn to objects that do that because I think it sparks some other aspect of our brains. It brings us into another place where our barriers fall down. The things that we wonder. I think you mentioned earlier where you want to question something and you hold back because you want to be generous in it. I want to find a way to do that so that those questions do come up, because I think they are important. If you do have that instinct to question something, finding the way to do it and push it. And I think humor is a really compelling way to do that. So one example is working with a company now, and we're helping them think into their future. And one aspect of that future that came up in questions, but they didn't know how to represent, because when you're inside structure, you're looking for that efficient answer. You're not looking for the thing that maybe takes your eye off the ball. And so I think with humor, you can do that. So one of the examples we did is into autonomous vehicles. And so I proposed an advertisement in this project we're doing, which is for an autonomous dumpster. And the idea brings up this thing. It's like, okay, it's not just going to be beautiful cards. Like, once this stuff starts taking hold, there are going to be all kinds of unexpected and unintended weird things that happen. And you can say that with a humorous ad. You can say it in a way that makes you look at it and you laugh for a second, and then you begin to wonder, wait, what are the consequences of the decisions I'm making now? It's not just the thing that's laid out in the ideal playbook. There will be lots of very many other ramifications. I was so fascinated by your assessment of the potential for the cereal box. And I think people forget how significant an impact the cereal box has on our days, because for people that do eat cereal, myself included, generally speaking, when you're at the breakfast table or for, or in my case, the dinner table, you have the box and you're sort of hypnotized by it. And I still claim that the reason that so many people were so upset about the Tropicana redesign back in 2001, I think that's when it was, was because they live with that container on their table and stare at it. And what is it we're looking for when we're looking at these objects on our tables in the morning? Yeah, it's meaning and sort of a sense of membership, of belonging, of a part of almost like kinship in a way. And I think that's a lot of the work that goes into those kinds of things. I mean, you know, this very well is about bringing up that kind of relationship, something that people can relate to and becomes familiar. And it's like all of a sudden when it changes. The thing is, it's like one point when I was with my dad, who took me to the convention, at one point, for some reason, he decided to shave his beard. And so he showed up with a shaved beard, and it was just like, whoa. I mean, there was a rupture in the family. I mean, there were tears. Oh, yeah, of course. It was a big deal. And so that's that same kind of emotion that happens. Like that thing that I lived with that was part of my life has now changed, and I don't recognize it anymore. Literally not recognizing it, not able to make sense of what's going on. And it sounds like that's probably the case. Well, it's so interesting to. I'm so fascinated by people that are sort of futurists or think about the future, because I'm still trying to make sense of the past. And I find that I would much more consider myself an analyst than anything else. And in order to be able to envision the future, you have to be in a position where you're not scared of it. And so many people are afraid of change. It's sort of in our DNA. It's not something we can control. It's the reptilian brain that sort of has that involuntary power over everything else that we do. How do you get people to begin to seed ideas about what the future can be? Because you were talking about the cereal box with the cricket on it. You know, you're seeding an idea. You're giving people a way in which to envision something different. It seems like we could probably have those sort of trojan horses in everything that we do if we want to. It sort of crosses a line into subliminal in some ways. But on the other hand, if it's something that is teaching, that could be something really positive. How do you see seeding possibilities for the future in the present? Yeah, so, well, there's a little bit of a goofy kind of humor to the process. First of all, I would say that I think when I think about the imagination, and this is also, like, a little bit of my goofy humor is like, I think of ways in which we can do like, what are kettlebells for the imagination? If you think of the imagination as a muscle, what are they? It's not going to do what it's on its own. You need to do these kinds of almost like, exercises. Forward thinking about ways we talked earlier, it was mentioned Rob Orca's the art of noticing. I think Devon Powers mentioned that. It's almost like a description of ways of seeing the world. And you have to do it repeatedly. You have to do burpees for your imagination over and over again. And so there are all these different ways of doing it. So, like, one of the things is we have like these kind of card based work kits, which are kind of fun ways of kind of doing that exploration, challenging your imagination to see and think of the world differently. But typically what we'll do is like, sort of take someone by the hand and start by saying, like, the near future laboratory has this time machine. It's pretty crappy. It's kind of got this weird oil leaking out of it. There's a red tag on one of the buttons that says, do not press ever. There's another tag on a button that says, please repair as soon as possible. Let's get in the time machine. Let's go someplace. And the thing about the time machine is like, we're not sure when it's going to have to go back. So we don't get to see the whole world. We don't get to talk to political leaders. We don't get to make predictions or declarations about the world. We might end up in someone's bedroom that people are like, oh, okay, that's cool, familiar. I don't feel like I'm going to have to make the right idea or tell people what I think the future is going to be. I'm just going to look for stuff. You might end up on a corner store. You might end up at a magazine stand. What magazines do you see? What do they look like? What are the headline stories? And then it gives people a way of relaxing into the future and not having that sense of, oh, I don't know. I don't know. I'm not sure what to think about. And I'm no good at this. And I don't read up enough to know what's going to be in the future. Just imagine what's going to be in your bedroom, what's on your bedside table when you wake up and everything goes. And when you start doing that, when you start having those conversations, all of a sudden, all these beautiful ideas come out of it. And someone might say something. Just a matter of fact, it might be like, that is a thing. Like, let's make the product ad for that thing. Let's turn that into something that is, you can really feel. It's not about, like, hydrogen powered pump action something or other. It's just about the everyday, the normal, the ordinary. And that's when you start getting people to just feel a little bit less concerned about it. They're like, they're okay with the unanticipated, and, you know, they're okay with that. And that's when their imagination can get. Imagination just clicks right in. Yeah. So I want to talk to you about one last thing. And it's something that you didn't talk about, and I'm so surprised that you didn't talk about it. And that's your brand, Omada. So Julian created an entire company in his garage in 2015. Is that right? That's right. It started the very last day of 2014. So just tell our audience a little bit about it because it's beautiful and fascinating and just another aspect of your polymathic world that we live in. Sure. So, yeah, back then, I guess it's probably going on eight years. I wanted to go through the process of actually making a product that shipped in the world. And my last years at Nokia, we were close to that, but we got to the third pre production build, and then it was like, I think the fourth CEO of my time there and decided to do the things that CEO do and cut the program. So it was just. Just barely missed it. And so for me, it was an opportunity to create this product. So at the time, I was really getting into cycling, and it was a bit of a design fiction in my mind. I wanted to see if I could create an object that compelled people to think about what a cycling computer could be. You think about that. It's sort of like a rectangular plastic thing with a digital display. It tells you how fast you're going and all that kind of stuff. And I wanted to see if there was a way in which I could get people to think of it differently otherwise, as something that maybe came from an adjacent world where priorities and people's assumptions about what a computer is could be different. So it's just got. It's got a mechanical analog display, which is a fucking pain in the ass to do when it comes down to it. And it became this kind of, for me, a way of, well, first ticking the box of actually making a product and starting a company successful, and then another way of really pushing as far as I could into this idea of looking at the world otherwise and finding a way to see other possibilities and not just stay on the rails. In that case of what we assume a digital computer has to be. Absolutely. How can people find more of what you do with OMATA? Yeah, it's dot. Okay. Very easy. Ladies and gentlemen, Julian Bleecker. Thank you. Thank you.
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