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This question crosses my mind from time to time as I am a Windows user and have often thought about going down the cheaper route by using a Linux based OS such as Ubuntu and getting free software that can do the jobs I need just as well.

As a user of the Adobe Creative Suite, I've always wondered if other designers/clients look down on you as a designer and also look down on the quality of your work if you don't use, let's say Photoshop and used GIMP instead, or Inkscape instead of Illustrator?

I may just be naive about this whole question and there could be many well respected designers out there that choose to use the free alternatives instead of the "top" software and get the work done just as well.

So basically, is it possible to establish yourself as a respected designer if you choose to use the free alternatives but create the same final quality of product?

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    I'm not an experienced or high level graphic designer, but I have done some reasonable audio, video, image, and vector editing for my apps on Linux using Audacity, Kdenlive, GIMP, and Inkscape. And as for using Linux, at least in the development world, puts you in a better light that Windows much of the time. – Linuxios Oct 9 '14 at 0:09
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    I'll give you my perspective as a potential client of yours. I don't care what you use, so long as your resulting quality is what I expect. If your competitor uses top-notch software and is around the same price as you, and you offer less quality work, I'll choose them. But if your quality is equal to or greater than that of other's, then I'd choose you. So basically, it doesn't matter what you use so long as it gets the job done. And don't take that as "Oh great, that means I can be as stingy as I like". There probably will be times where you'll need to pay a lot for software because the free – jay_t55 Oct 9 '14 at 5:21
  • ... versions might be missing certain things that will prevent you from achieving the same level of quality as the paid-for versions. Also, it's not always about quality, but also about efficiency. For example, I wrote a C# compiler last year and so I can write C# programs in Notepad and compile them with my compiler. But, I still prefer to use Visual Studio (costs $$$) because I can do the same thing in about 1billionth of the time compared to Notepad. – jay_t55 Oct 9 '14 at 5:22
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    ^ An egregious exaggeration there, I just have to point out. – TylerH Oct 9 '14 at 13:38
  • In the same situation for programming, it is frowned upon to be stingy with regard to the software you use and use open source to save money (programs cost nothing in comparison to programmers, therefore company owners should make sure they have the best tools they can buy), but it is fine to use cheaper software as a matter of choice. – rlms Oct 9 '14 at 21:06

10 Answers 10

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In todays world there is Adobe, then everything else. This was not always the case.

I'll overlook any "learning curve" issues and assume someone knows whatever app they use well.

The issue with using "everything else" can be directly felt in terms of workflow speed and compatibility.

For layout....

There was a time when you chose between Aldus Pagemaker (later Adobe Pagemaker) and QuarkXPress. Today you can choose between Adobe InDesign and QuarkXpress. There's no direct connotation to either except perhaps if you are an XPress user you may be seen as more "old school" which is not necessarily a bad thing. It all really depends upon who you are speaking to. Those that know the design industry understand that InDesign and XPress basically do the same thing at a professional level and using one over the other is primarily a matter of preference. Those that do not know the design industry may not know what XPress even is and may see that use as varying from the "norm".

Scribus is also often heard of for layout. To be honest, I've not met anyone who sees the use of Scribus for design any more professional than if you were using Apple's Pages app or Microsoft Word for design. Scribus is an extreme niché market from what I can tell and, unfortunately, most would see a Scribus, Pages, or Word designer as no designer at all. For page layout, professionals see InDesign and Xpress and nothing else.

For vector content....

There used to be Aldus/Macromedia Freehand and Adobe Illustrator - using either was fine. When Adobe purchased Macromedia in 2005, Freehand died a couple years later. Freehand was a definite competitor to Illustrator and using one or the other carried absolutely no connotation as being "non-professional". It was all a matter of preference. Today there's Illustrator then everything else.

As an example of "everything else" and possible technical issues, Inkscape is a good tool, however it's built on an Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) core. That SVG core is still relatively new and suffers from growing pains in the form of unstable files at times. Not often, but it does happen. SVG has bugs and isn't as "fleshed-out" as the postscript/PDF core of Illustrator. After all Adobe has had 30+years to work on postscript since they invented it. SVG is only 15 years old and it's open source. So half the growth time and no "one" team developing it to go farther. Depending on SVG means you are reliant on someone, somewhere putting in work to further develop something they don't own. Naturally, growth is slower due to this.

There's also Xara. However, being a Windows and Linux only application, I can't comment directly on it's usage. I merely know it exists. I think the only connotation it directly carries is "I use Windows." I've not personally ever been given a Xara-created file so I can't directly comment on how "transferable" Xara files are with other apps. If they move fairly seamlessly to anything on the Macintosh platform that I don't think there would be an issue. But, if they tend to require Windows and Xara to open/edit the files then using Xara would basically paint you in a corner and make working with other designers difficult.

While other, smaller vector editing apps exist (Sketch, iDraw, etc) the overall feature set, in my experience, is minimal compared to Illustrator. But if these work for you, they work! The only thing I'd "think" knowing someone were using these would be "Okay, they aren't creating XXXX, because you can't with that app." However, "xxxx" may be entirely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

For raster content....

Photoshop has always been the leader in raster image editing. There's never been any other app which has as much power and as large a feature set as Photoshop. Due to this Photoshop is often years ahead of any competition in terms of features. However, it could easily be stated that Photoshop has too many features and not all of them are required by all users.

In terms of down-and-dirty raster image editing/correction there are a number of apps today which work. GIMP seems to be gaining traction as well as a few other smaller apps.

The issue with the "other" raster apps is often a lack of features and core functionality. For example, if you are only creating images for the web/screen many apps will work. However, as soon as you need CMYK images for press 98% of the apps are worthless. So, you would, as a designer, need at least 2 raster editing apps to cover both print and web work or find one app that does both - this is where Photoshop has a stable footing. GIMP does not support CMYK as far as I can tell. So, it's also one of those apps which may be worthless for anyone creating print designs. So this is more a matter of workflow than the actual app. The only real connotation Photoshop alternatives may present is "Okay, they aren't creating images for press." Whether or not that's a favorable reflection would depend on the person. I, personally, don't think many would hold it against anyone.

Others....

Macromedia Fireworks was a good web/UI competitor for both Illustrator and Photoshop. But Adobe killed Fireworks last year after purchasing it from Macromedia in 2005.

Corel has a suite of tools which are very popular - from Draw to Designer to Painter and others. These are all good tools, but due to feature sets often are more specialized in use. In fact, apps such as Painter are far better at creating digital paintings than Photoshop ever has been. But Painter isn't as good as general image touch up, restoration and color correction. So it's a trade off. Corel also ignored the Macintosh market for years - this did more to cement them as a less-than-optimum developer from the start. Had they started, like Adobe, by developing for both platforms I suspect they'd be real competition for Adobe today. You do still see many, many illustrators using Painter over Photoshop and sign shops seem to often prefer CorelDraw over Illustrator. I understand the Painter preference. I'm not certain what the sign preference is related to other than perhaps cost.

For web design... this assumes "web design" as related to HTML/CSS more than image editing and asset creation..... in my experience, it literally does not matter. Use Dreamweaver, Coda, or any one of thousands of other apps - or hand-code. I've not met anyone in web design/development that cares what you use. They only care about the code, and rightly so. That being posted, relying too much on what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) can be detrimental. You should often understand the basic code needed in web design even if you can't directly write higher-level functionality.

Compatibility and workflow...

So what do all the app comparisons have to do with the question? Well, most professionals want to work the least amount time and accomplish the most. That seems only natural. And most who have been in the industry for a number of years are fully aware of the smaller alternatives to Adobe applications. And I'd hazard a guess that a lot have explored using the smaller apps, especially in the past couple years. The smaller apps may have even been adopted to a degree. Whether or not the "other" apps are a viable alternative depends entirely on what you need to do with files.

If you are a sole designer working on projects which remain in your control/office and are not handed off to anyone else to work on, then what you use to develop designs is largely irrelevant. The important piece of the puzzle is final file delivery. If you create press-ready PDFs it makes little difference what you use to create those PDFs just so long as they are correct and stable. If you are creating jpgs, pngs, eps, files, again what you use doesn't matter. It's the deliverable which matters. Most clients don't care what is being used as long as the final product is as it needs to be.

If you are part of a team, there can be compatibility issues. For example, if you are hired to create a full web site mockup then hand it off to a developer if you use GIMP, you then need to be aware of whether or not the developer knows and has GIMP or if you export/save from GIMP as a Photoshop compatible file, you need to be aware of issues which may arise there. If the entire team is using something other than Adobe software then things may be absolutely fine with passing off files. Essentially, if you aren't using Adobe tools you need to know how to provide files, in workable form, to those on the team which are using Adobe tools. So, this is an extra level of concern and could possibly present unresolvable issues.

I do not intend to speak for the entire industry, my experience is that if you aren't using Adobe tools you generally have far more time and file flexibility than most other professionals have. Whether or not some other designer would see that as a positive or a negative reflection upon you is wholly dependent upon that person.

I know if I were approached to partner with another designer and they wanted to provide Inkscape or GIMP files to me I really would not care. Send me files that work well and I'd promote your services, compliment you, and pass your name along .... However, send me files where I run into problem after problem with the files due to compatibility issues and my attitude will be different. In addition, I could not send you my Illustrator files without first flattening them and saving them as an EPS. That entails additional, otherwise unnecessary, work on my part. So there are problems both ways in this instance. Problems mean lost revenue and if someone chooses to save money by using free alternatives to Adobe applications at the expense of my time and my revenue then my desire to work with that person will decrease in direct correlation to the problems the files present. If asked at a later date to work with the same person again, I'd decline. It would be purely a business decision. That may be the biggest compatibility issue using freeware or inexpensive alternatives present.

We all like a smooth ride. If your choices disrupt that, others may not be in favor of adding you into the workflow mix. But if your choices do nothing to alter the overall workflow, there's little, if any, downside.

The unspoken....

The direct connotations today regarding what tools you use are different than they were just two years ago.

A couple years ago, not using Adobe tools (with the exception of XPress) was directly seen as "can't afford" or "hobbyist" in the eyes of many. Before Adobe implemented the (horrible) subscription model most understood that due to Adobe's purchase and killing off of competition, there was no real alternative if you had to get your work done. Adobe created a seamless workflow between their major applications and even in spite of the bugs and problems with the software there was an understanding that using the Adobe Suite meant you could work faster. This is still true today for the most part. Therefore, if you weren't using Adobe apps (or Xpress) you were clearly seen as less-than-high-level. 5 years ago you didn't hear from Inkscape users or GIMP users in professional circles. They simply weren't present.

Today, not using Adobe tools carries a different connotation in my perception - some good, some bad. Today there's a clear move to get away from the stranglehold Adobe has on the design industry (I actually think it should be investigated as anti-trust) and many, many, designers are looking for a way to get out from under the Adobe thumb since it's clear that Adobe is taking advantage of their near monopoly in the industry. Often, I find designers using non-Adobe tools actually have and know the Adobe tools but are consciously trying to move away from them. All that carries with it is a clear indication that that designer isn't a fan of Adobe pricing models. But if you don't even know the Adobe tools, in general, it may reflect badly upon you. It's a sad state, but nonetheless often true. Adobe unfortunately has been the design industry for 30 years. Not knowing Adobe tools shows a lack of understanding in the industry and a tendency for isolation in your work. So in short, you need to at least have some understanding of the tools even if you choose to not use the tools.

Employment is another matter. Chances are if you're looking for a job in the industry Adobe is a staple of that companies workflow. Not knowing the Adobe apps certainly won't move your resume to the top of the stack and it won't matter that you know Inkscape or GIMP very well. I have never heard of any company which would even consider hiring a designer that was not familiar with the Adobe applications.

I've listed several various apps in this answer. These are common apps I've seen and heard of designers using. If you are using something which I have not mentioned here, most professionals will lean towards not thinking of you as a professional at all and more as a hobbyist. I'm not a fan of this, but it is often the reality. The trick to this is to show the work then if asked share the names of the tools you use. Designers can be elitists and look down upon someone using apps they've never heard of. However, if you show work they like, they suddenly become more open minded. Fickle bunch. :) A clear example of this is mentioning you use FrameMaker to most designers. Often, you'll see eyes roll and clear looks of contempt or superiority because they may have never heard of it. That is, until that designer finds out what Framemaker actually is. Then their attitude changes drastically. Familiarity in the tools tends to be conducive to colleague support - everyone having the same base leads to a sense of "community" and as soon as you change your base, the "community" begins to look at you sideways as unfamiliar ground.

In the end....

Using smaller, non-Adobe apps can present technical issues if you need to hand off files. These technical issues will reflect poorly upon you. The more often they happen, then more you'll appear incompetent. No one tolerates "Oh, that was a bug in the app" as an excuse more than one or two times. If you can work with the smaller tools and not experience any technical issues when handing off or delivering final files, then there may be no issue.

If the smaller apps work and offer you the features you want, then by all means use them. The important factor is that final deliverables are in a state they are required to be in, you are aware of and can work with compatibility issues, and you're happy with your decision. But be aware that if you depend on others, or others depend on you, deviating from the "standard" which has been Adobe may not be the wisest move today. Hopefully that will change at some point.

Please realize that much of this is my opinion based on my experience. Different designers will surely have different opinions.

And this is way longer than I thought it was going to be when I started :)

  • Very well said. You don't mention video but it could easily be included. There are other paid apps like Final Cut Pro for example but its Mac specific and only replaces Premiere. It's even more challenging to replace After Effects. – Ryan Oct 8 '14 at 18:58
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    You should have used InDesign to write this post, someone told me it's a good choice for writing novels. Will there be a paperback edition anytime soon? – JohnB Oct 8 '14 at 20:56
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    There's a lot of opinion on this that is debatable. For instance, the length of a file formats existence to being 'more stable'. If you've ever looked at the source of a PSD fie you will know that Adobe isn't necessarily known for having 'solid, well thought out' file formats. :) The summary is quite good, though. – DA01 Oct 8 '14 at 21:13
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    'SVG is only 15 years old and it's open source. So half the growth time and no "one" team developing it to go farther.' - this may be a bit misleading. It refers to the SVG implementation used in Inkscape, but if it is compared to the postscript format, it should be noted that the SVG format is a W3C standard, separate from the development team of Inkscape and the open source community. – O. R. Mapper Oct 10 '14 at 6:59
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    For raster graphic, I think Krita is worth mentioning. Functionally it is on par with GIMP and it natively supports different colorspaces (up to 32bit RGB, LAB, CMYK and maybe some more) – Erbureth Oct 10 '14 at 7:40
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I firmly believe that, in this area at least, as long as your final work has a solid base in planification and reasoning, there is no right or wrong when it comes to software.

To be honest, it doesn't matter if you do your designs in Microsoft Paint, as long as the end result matches what your client needs and wants, or what initially intended during your drafting process.

That being said, and when facing clients, I can see why telling a client you don't use Photoshop or Illustrator might come as you're "not up to standards", but hopefully they will value your final work rather than your toolset. There is also the compatibility issue, where you can't really work in a team unless you can all work with the same editable files (.XCF vs .PSD).

I myself tried many alternatives to the Adobe Suite, and while some of them are amazingly powerful tools, at the end of the day I found that the integration in other services, the sharing ease with other team members and the fact that I know the software better than the alternatives are reasons enough for me to stick with Adobe (and the fact that the company pays for the license, of course!).

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The quality of your work is judged by your work...not the tool you used to make it. So if your output is good, that's all that matters.

As such, no, what software you use isn't what other designers will judge you by (or at least, isn't what they SHOULD judge you by).

All that said, if you work in this industry, and have to SHARE files, you likely have to bite the bullet some day and suck it up and hand Adobe a blank check.

FWIW, I do all my freelance work using non-Adobe products. So yes, it's certainly doable. But if I were to start doing contract work for other design firms, they're going to likely want Adobe files just to make it practical to work with each other.

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Some of this will depend on the eventual purposing for your produced work. From the standpoint of print production, using mainstream products like the Adobe suite is beneficial in that we (prepress operators) can reasonably edit your work to fit the needs we have for our workflow and end-product quality. Of course, this is mainly applicable to programs that generate page layouts or vector art; raster images like .tiff, .jpeg or raster .eps can almost always be opened in Photoshop with no ill effect.

Software that is capable of producing standards-compliant PDFs (X-1A,X-4) is generally okay, as we can throw editing tools like PitStop at it to make edits/fixes as needed. The fallback for us is to open the PDFs in Illustrator.

97% of the files we work with these days are coming from Adobe products. Rare smatterings of Freehand and Quark files; PDFs generated from Word, Excel and [gasp] PowerPoint.

I am no fan of Adobe's move to the subscription-based model for their products. If there are other programs that will let you get your work done, I wouldn't begrudge you for employing them.

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Let me tell you about Billy (his real name is not important). Billy was a college colleague. We all used auto cad, he used visio (or something). We used adobe, he used corel. Now, as projects came and went, we all benefited from each other's knowledge, we thought each other tricks to get the job done faster and better, etc.

Billy, on the other hand, had no one to help him. Billy used visio. :)

The thing about main stream, there are a lot of tools, plugins + the collective intelligence of the internet waiting silently a google search away, just to help you.

Main stream, as far as tools go, is how you want to go. That way, you will do your job faster and with less head aches. And you won't frustrate team members. :)

That does not mean you should ignore ImageMagick or InkScape or whatever. Just try doing some under the hood stuff with SVGs in Illustrator. You'll get my meaning.

Mr. Kutnowski pretty much has point.

Best of luck to you!

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    While decent advice, I don't see how this answer the question? – Ryan Oct 8 '14 at 16:09
  • I posted my answer as an addendum to mr. Kutnowski's answer, friend, providing another probable cause as to why a competent open source using designer might be cast aside. I would have expected receiving a down vote if I would have rewritten mr. Kutnowski's points. – PaulEffect Oct 8 '14 at 16:17
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    its nothing personal, I just don't see how it answers the question "is it possible to establish yourself as a respected designer." You can always edit it. If it was just an addendum as you put it then it would've been better condensed into a comment on Johnny Kutnowski's answer. Like I said, it's good advice and definitely something to consider. But if you ignore this advice and do only lower-grade products anyways then can you still be respected? That was the question. – Ryan Oct 8 '14 at 16:27
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    of course it has! there are productivity tools. the bigger the user base, the better the tools.Like visual studio - resharper . Or various plugins that organize layers in Photoshop or illustratror. Or those that let you preview the doc directly on the smartphone, etc. That was my point. Maybe we're talking about different things. Perhaps I didn't convey me meaning precisely. – PaulEffect Oct 8 '14 at 21:55
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    "the bigger the user base, the better the tools" = have you ever used Sharepoint? Peoplesoft? Lotus Notes? Internet Explorer? Sadly, there's no real correlation between software sales numbers and usefulness of said software. You are correct that more add-ons and tutorials and the like are available. That is true. But it doesn't mean the software, itself, is any more efficient than any other product. – DA01 Oct 9 '14 at 1:40
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If you are using Windows (linux see below) I would recommend Xara. I've been using it for 17 years and for a while it was sold by Corel because the rendering engine was so much better. It still is.

As a tool for producing web graphics it is utterly unsurpassed. What more there are free versions you can try. Very intuitive too. It manipulates bitmaps as well as vector graphics. Interchange from Adobe product is very good.

http://www.xara.com/us/

Sadly the linux version (http://www.xaraxtreme.org/) which was open source is miles behind (although still very good) and there is no Mac version

  • I'm not really sure how this answers the question. I did add Xara to my (stupidly long) answer though. – Scott Oct 8 '14 at 22:36
  • Adobes rendering engine seems to get worse over time .... – joojaa Oct 9 '14 at 13:31
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As a designer I work with programs the client wants and the printing company can use, which in my case is Photoshop and Illustrator. Sometimes they prefer PDF. Just ask with which formats they can work and which is prefered.

They don't want incompatible files, hence I use an older version. I always add a text outlined version to avoid font problems. They don't care or know what I use as long as the result is in the required format. It doesn't mean I always get the source material in the proper format.

So to answer your question: Yes! Would I use an alternative program? No, it might speed up certain things. But if I need help or a video tutorial update I can find that more easily with the main stream programs.

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If you use GIMP over photoshop for high quality graphic designs then.. kutos to you.

The software itself does not matter but as a graphic designer i URGE you to PLEASE update your softwares. Ubuntu is not good for graphic designers, i would only recommend ubuntu for programmers.

Linux supports the adobe products so that is a good operating system to choose (i would recommend linux for any graphic designing job).

Windows will also work fine.

Gimp works fine for simple operations, but PhotoShop offers ALOT more features that you just can not get from Gimp.

can you use a mickey mouse pen to sign a contract? Sure, but i wouldn't recommend it.

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    Ubuntu is an OS, not a graphic design tool. You're contradicting yourself. – Tony Oct 12 '14 at 14:58
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    ? Obviously Ubuntu is a operating system. I never said or hinted that Ubuntu was an operating system. From the OP -"I am a Windows user and have often thought about going down the cheaper route by using a Linux based OS such as Ubuntu and getting free software that can do the jobs I need just as well." – THE AMAZING Oct 12 '14 at 15:42
  • You just did it again. – Tony Oct 13 '14 at 2:37
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If you're designing to make a living, then you should just base your decision on what gets the job done in the quickest, most efficient way. Not what the software costs. If you prefer the free software, and are proficient with it, then that's great, you can save yourself a bit of money. However if you're even marginally more productive using the commercial software, then in the long run this will be the best choice. If you ever have to say to a client, "sorry I can't use these assets, because they're in a format my free software doesn't support", needless to say this will not be well received. It's expected that any serious professional should be able to afford the tools of their trade.

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So basically, is it possible to establish yourself as a respected designer if you choose to use the free alternatives but create the same final quality of product?

Obviously yes since by definition, if you're providing the same final product, the client won't be able to tell the difference.

Can I produce designs of the same quality using non-leading software?

Yes, but why would you? Even though alternatives exist, most professional designers go with Photoshop and InDesign because they are simply better tools. The presumption is that if a free tool really is better than InDesign and Photoshop, people would use that. I have used GIMP and it seems like it would take significantly longer to make the same thing using GIMP than with Photoshop.

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    Your answer assumes that people are not conservative in their choice of tools (they are) and that advertising makes no difference (it does). Adobe tools might not be better than some free alternatives -- you cannot tell by the popularity of the tools alone. I am not claiming that the Adobe tools are not better though -- I have no real experience with them so I wouldn't be able to judge. I have asked a few people to try the free alternatives to get a professional opinion but so far, nobody has done so. – Clearer Oct 10 '14 at 11:41

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