The ethics review of visual communication design research proposals: is a 'dual mandate' approach justifiable?



Media & Communications Design


  • visual communication, design process, design philosophies, ethics


The majority of institutional ethics committees at South African tertiary institutions state in their standard operating procedures that the role of the ethics committee includes screening proposed research with regard to the core principles of ethics (dignity and autonomy, justice, non-maleficence and beneficence), as well as the scientific validity of the envisaged study.  

The first part of this paper debates to what extent such an approach is justified, as the notion of validity is primarily located in the philosophy of science and not in the field of moral philosophy.  

The second part of the paper illustrates some of the main points of the discussion with selected examples from the field of visual communication design research.

The examples are drawn from

  1. practice-based design research, where the products of the design practice are presented as inquiry outcomes, often contextualized in an accompanying written report;
  2. practice-led design research, i.e. studies that investigate the nature of practice in an effort to develop insights that will contribute to new knowledge about the design practice, where the processes and products of the design practice may be used as data, but are not considered to be inquiry outputs in themselves; and
  3. image-based design research, or research approaches where visual images such as photographs, drawings or video recordings form an integral part of the data collection and analysis methods.

As the selected examples show, the notions of validity and ethics are interwoven and inextricably linked, but not inseparable. While recognizing that crude errors of reasoning (i.e. low validity) may in some cases ultimately lead to harm (i.e. unethical conduct), it is argued that the 'dual mandate' approach of screening for issues of ethics and validity concomitantly is not suitable for visual communication design research. Ethics clearance is a relatively recent requirement at Universities of Technology and is becoming increasingly rigorous. In the light thereof, the paper contributes to the current debates about the ethics dimension of design practice and design research, especially in a South African setting.

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