Setting a Standard

The DIN A4 norm is something most everyone is familiar with. Yet standards
don’t just affect paper sizes, but almost all areas of our lives these days. Without standards (almost) nothing works in international business—but how are these standards created?
Text Jörg Riedle

This year a successful initiative is celebrating its anniversary: one hundred years ago, on March 1, 1918, the first DIN standard was published. Back then, standardization—the binding specification of requirements for products, services or processes—was above all a national matter. DIN is actually an abbreviation for the German Institute for Standardization (Deutsche Institut für Normung). This most important German standardization organization had been founded just a few months before, in December 1917.

Many things have changed since that time. Standards govern just about every area of our lives: regulations have been set over the past century for almost every product that we use in daily life—from components used in machine building (like that first DIN standard one hundred years ago) to safety features for sporting goods to rules about how certain production and administration processes should be executed.

In a globalized world, however, it is the international regulations that more and more frequently determine what a product or a process should be like. Since 1947, the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, headquartered in Geneva, has been monitoring worldwide standards. The ISO has issued more than 22,000 international standards since that time—on almost every technical aspect imaginable. Currently 161 countries participate in this international standardization process.


But how does a new standard come into being?


1Almost every country has its own standardization organization—in Germany this is the German Institute for Standardization (DIN) with its famous DIN standards (of which the DIN formats for paper sizes are the most well known). But because global trade by its very nature does not stop at international borders, the national organizations have joined forces in a transnational organization. The largest and most important of these is the ISO in Geneva. It ensures that goods from different countries comply with equivalent norms, simplifying export and world trade. The famous DIN standard for paper has thus been an international standard for many years—codified in ISO Standard 216. This ensures for instance that the typical A4 paper also fits into printers manufactured in Japan, China and even in the United States, which uses a different standard size of 8.5 x 11-inch paper.


2Very few products remain as stable over time as paper sizes. Many goods undergo further technical development, whether as a result of more modern manufacturing processes or new safety findings. Thus standards must continually be reviewed. For example, if a consumer organization discovers that the ISO Standard 20.345, which regulates the characteristics of safety shoes, must be amended, they can present this information to a standardization organization. The right to recommend a new standard or an adjustment to an existing one is fundamentally open to anyone—from government agencies to companies to individual persons. Depending on how relevant a product is for the international market, the proposal may be submitted at either the national or international level.


3A proposal has been submitted to the ISO. But does the revision of a standard really make sense? This question is reviewed through the New Work Item Proposal. The organization then asks its 161 member organizations—one for every participating country. If and only if a relative majority agrees to the proposal and at least five members are prepared to work on the revision does the proposal head to the next step.


4A working group is formed to draw up the specific text. The working group is made up of delegations of the participating national standardization bodies. Anyone may participate—after all, the working group should bring together as much expertise and as many opinions as possible. Depending on the topic, the group may get to be quite large. Along with the national organizations and consumer protection groups, the working group usually also has representatives from industrial associations, while ensuring that no interest group has a majority. The ISO counsels against one-sided representations: the committee chairs must guarantee that all relevant groups have a say and participate in the decision-making.

5Perhaps several years have passed by now. The draft version is finally finished—and is made public for the first time. All interested parties once again have the opportunity to present their views in several clearly defined steps. No objections? Then the ISO can take the final step and publish the new standard.


6The ISO is an association and therefore the individual member states aren’t obligated to accept its standards. But because it makes sense to set as many international standards as possible for global trade, many countries voluntarily accept the standards and incorporate them into their own regulations. Thus the European Union adopts the majority of regulations that are developed by the ISO in Geneva.


7Where a standard applies can be easily determined by the combination of letters and numbers in each standard. In Germany this works as follows: the DIN abbreviation plus a number is exclusively or mainly relevant for Germany. The abbreviation DIN EN plus a number indicates that the standard has been adopted by all the members of the joint European standardization organization. And if the designation reads DIN EN ISO plus a number, then this means that the standard applies at the national, European and international levels.