A standard is a repeatable, harmonized, agreed, and documented way of doing something. Standards contain technical specifications or other precise criteria designed to be used consistently as a rule, guideline, or definition. They help to make life simpler and increase the reliability and effectiveness of many of the goods and services we use.

Standards result from collective work by experts in a field and provide a consensus at the time when the standards are developed. As standards in the international arena are established on a consensus and broad stakeholder basis, they represent what can be agreed upon. A published standard is therefore the harmonized synthesis of what the group is prepared to publish. In terms of international and regional standardization, this is even more important than at the national level: the importance of consensus is critical because of large and diverse stakeholder groups and needs. Ultimately this may mean that a standard might lack some of the clarity, detail, or specific criteria certain stakeholder groups or individuals would have preferred.

Standards do not necessarily have to be developed by standardization bodies, such as ISO or the IEC. Any organization can establish standards for internal or external use. However, to be truly called a standard, the requirements stated above must be met.[1]

A standard is a generally agreed-upon technology, method, or format for a given application.

Official standards, also known as de jure standards, are overseen by one of a number of governing bodies that exist to promote their development and confirm their status. The IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), for example, is a standards organization that defines Internet operating protocols such as TCP/IP.

Standards that are endorsed by the IETF and similar organizations are known as de jure standards. De facto standards, on the other hand, gain prominence because they are widely used. Examples of de facto standards include Microsoft’s Windows operating system and the QWERTY keyboard layout.[2]

Types of Standards[3]

While there is no single accepted definition for standards, a good working definition by Charles Sullivan describes a standard as "a category of documents whose function is to control some aspect of human endeavor."

Standards can be voluntary or mandatory, and as technology and needs change, become superseded. They are created by industrial societies and government bodies, in the United States and in foreign countries. They are numerous and growing. Originally discussed by the LaQue report in 1961, the United States standards environment has been short on coordination and long on independent action among the standards issuing bodies. The situation is a little better today, but currently, there are more than 550 standards-issuing bodies in the United States, as compared to 350 in 1961.

The world has taken steps to improve the standards situation. After World War II, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) helped two fledgling international organizations, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), increase their roles in the standards arena. Today international standards are an important and growing area as well, with over 7000 ISO standards currently.

Voluntary Standards: These are standards whose use is theoretically voluntary, but in practice is widely adopted for the sake of ease of manufacture, interchangeability, and safety. Virtually all industrial standards are voluntary standards. At times, such standards have been used in an exclusionary way, to favor one group or organization over its rivals.

Mandatory Standards: Mandatory standards are, in effect, laws. Failure to follow them could result in legal penalties and liability. They are generally adopted out of concern for safety and promulgated by the Federal government or one of its agencies or departments. Codes are groups of standards on the same topic, generally created for government agencies, and are thus mandatory standards.

Performance Specification Standards: These standards specify the performance levels of a particular item or process, such as a grade of steel or test methods. It doesn't matter how a thing is made or done, but it must meet a certain level of performance. That performance can be on a spectrum, with major points designated as a grade or class.

Criteria Standards: Criteria standards discuss how to go about an activity, kind of the "opposite" of a performance standard. Criteria standards set up recommendations considering certain aspects of an activity, such as bridge building, or a laboratory process.

Superseded Standards: Because quality, technology, and human needs change, standards change. Sometimes the area covered by the rules of a new standard must change to meet the new guidelines. Other times, only new activities must conform. Superseded standards provide information on how things used to be done, and provide valuable information when an older area of activity (like the capabilities of an old elevator or results from a lab using older reporting techniques) is being evaluated. The Art, Architecture & Engineering Library has a large number of superseded standards in our collection.

Standards Organizations

  • ANSI (American National Standards Institute)
  • ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials)
  • ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers)
  • IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)
  • SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers)
  • ISO (International Organization for Standardization)

In the United States, the industry relies on standards developed by hundreds of national and international SDOs. These SDOs are independent organizations that identify market needs and react accordingly, working directly with technical experts from around the globe to develop appropriate standards. Most SDOs welcome – or even actively encourage – participation from companies, government officials, organizations, and other stakeholders from around the globe.

As coordinator of the U.S. standards system, ANSI has developed an SDO Directory to help international stakeholders learn more about the organizations developing standards for their products or industry sectors. The key objectives of this resource are to:

  • Highlight and promote the important activities and contributions of these organizations in the U.S. and abroad
  • Make the decentralized U.S. system easier to understand and more accessible to international stakeholders
  • Encourage increased international participation in organizations important to U.S. stakeholders

See Also