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REVIEW / Kicking the World Cup into touch

FINALLY. Finalement. Endlich. It's been years in the pipeline, but the competition that pits the wits of the world's finest talents against one another, that mixes culture, ethics and entertainment in an unbeatable package, that keeps millions off the streets, is here. Finalmente. We all know which competition we're talking about, so there's hardly any point in mentioning it by name, but for the less sharp among us let's name it anyway: the BBC Design Awards (BBC 2).

Apparently there was something else kicking off last night, but with such stiff opposition you just dread to think how low its ratings must have been. You can tell the design finals were of greater domestic interest by the number of British participants - even though some of the architects playing in the big match being broadcast tonight are, like a bunch of bogus Irishmen, representing foreign countries. Sir Norman Foster's telecommunications tower is in Barcelona: he's obviously got a Catalan granny.

The other novelty with the Design Awards is that, from a short list nominated by the judges, the viewers pick the winner by phone. This democratic system has intriguing possibilities. As design is meant to bring about the perfect marriage of aesthetics and utility, doubtless many callers will be voting for Brazil, maybe a few for Germany, and none for Ireland. If you don't own a phone, by the way, there are places you can go to vote: in which case, either you're an insufferable Luddite, or you're in the front rank of anal-retentive trendies who only communicate by modem.

The series is presented by Muriel Gray. As she looks like the long-lost twin of Tintin, she is of course a triumph of iconic design herself. While it was a welief to watch an awards show not fwonted by Jonathan Woss, this award programme has had its own cliches to dodge. Some people see the word design, think it's spelt deSIgN, and run a mile: in each programme so far, the judges have avoided speaking pseudo-intellectual gobbledegook.

Last night we moved on from product design (the credit card-shaped pipe, etc) to the more elusive graphic design. Among the entries were ads, product packaging, even television credit sequences. They all perform a different job, but the one thing they have in common is a belief that the book is no more important than the cover, and probably a lot less important (see the Pet Shop Boys' orange bobbly plastic CD cover).

Of the three areas of design under consideration, the graphic discipline is the most open to confusion. One sequence focused on whether environmentalists should use advertising to get their message across; we never got to hear how a Friends of the Earth commercial worked on a visual level. Another film about three graphic designers caught them in dark suits stomping through an urban landscape. They reminded you of those other self-exhibiting artists: they should call themselves Gilbert and George and Geoffrey. But what do they do?

The graphic design that came in for most analysis was the Boots detergent packages that, like the food cans in Repo Man that just say 'Food' on them, just say 'Soap Flakes' or 'Starch'. We wondered whether it was fraudulent to state the obvious so, er, obviously. Some people want more zest in their soap-powder boxes, but many more are so zapped by all the multicoloured zigzags on the packaging that they can't remember which one they bought last time. In the supermarket, brand loyalty is the only goal. With no England in the World Cup (BBC 1, BBC 2 and ITV), for a lot of consumers brand loyalty isn't an option. Unless you support all the Englishmen playing for Ireland tonight.