The Lengthy, Specific & Complicated Process to Codify an International Standard

Have you ever asked yourself, “Where do Steve Smiley and Danny Rich get the really cool ideas for these International Standards?” While it may seem like wizardry or perhaps something darker, it is really a very simple process that just takes a long time and a lot of patience to get through.

Let’s look at how exactly this wizardry takes place.

ISO Documents

There are several types of ISO (actually an acronym for International Organization for Standardization) documents that can be developed. The most familiar are the International Standards. An International Standard (IS) provides rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or for their results, aimed at achieving the optimum degree of order in a given context. It can take many forms. Apart from product standards, other examples include test methods, codes of practice, guideline standards and management systems standards.

What is special about the International Standard is that in many countries, the existence of an ISO standard carries the force of law. Businesses that participate in the industry described by the standard are required to adopt and apply the standard in their day-to-day activities.

The second-most-common document is the Technical Specification (TS). A Technical Specification addresses work still under technical development, or where it is believed that there will be a future—but not immediate—possibility of agreement on an International Standard. A Technical Specification is published for immediate use, but it also provides a means to obtain feedback. The aim is that it will eventually be transformed and republished as an International Standard. This contains some really good ideas and procedures, but it does not yet carry the force of a law.

The next class of ISO document is the Technical Report (TR). A Technical Report contains information of a different kind from that of the previous two publications. It may include data obtained from a survey, for example, or from an informative report, or information of the perceived “state of the art.” There is currently a Technical Report under development describing how color-measuring instruments may be tested for their precision, inter-instrument agreement, inter-model agreement and conformance to the manufacturer’s specifications. Forcing the flexo community to test its instruments in the methods described in the document would be a challenge, so the report will show how these tests are done in other industries and identify the reasons and the procedures. At some point in the future, a graphic arts-oriented set of tests may be identified and a Technical Specification or International Standard developed.

One of the least-common documents is the Publicly Available Specification (PAS). A Publicly Available Specification is published to respond to an urgent market need, representing either the consensus of the experts within a working group, or a consensus in an organization external to ISO.

As with Technical Specifications, Publicly Available Specifications are published for immediate use and also serve as a means to obtain feedback for an eventual transformation into an International Standard. Publicly Available Specifications have a maximum life of six years, after which they can be transformed into an International Standard or withdrawn. Currently, ISO/PAS 15339-1 Graphic TechnologyPrinting from digital data across multiple technologies – Part 1: Principals is just such a document. It has been an ISO/PAS for almost six years and at the last ISO TC 130 meeting, it was decided now was the time to move this to an International Standard.

“It will always take between 18 months and 24 months to move a great idea through to becoming an International Standard. But, in the end, it will be worth it, as everyone in the industry will be practicing in a similar and predictable manner.”

There are two much less common types of documents. The first is the International Workshop Agreement (IWA). An International Workshop Agreement is a document developed outside the normal ISO committee system to enable market players to negotiate in an “open workshop” environment. International Workshop Agreements are typically administratively supported by a member body. The published agreement includes an indication of the participating organizations involved in its development. An International Workshop Agreement has a maximum lifespan of six years, after which it can be either transformed into another ISO deliverable or is automatically withdrawn.

Finally, there are ISO Guides. Guides are just that—They help readers understand more about the main areas where standards add value. Some guides talk about how, and why, ISO standards can make it work better, safer and more efficiently. A full list of guides is available in the ISO Catalogue. One such Guide is the Guide to the Determination of Uncertainty in Measurements (GUM). It describes how and why determining the uncertainty of a measurement system is important to understanding how to assess the reliability of a set of measurements. For example, suppose the uncertainty of the fingerprint of a proofing system was much larger than the uncertainty of the press system. In such a case, the digital proof would not be a good tool for aligning and establishing press aims.

Once the type of document has been decided, then the good ideas must be documented accordingly. All documents begin at the same place—a proposal to a Technical Committee (TC) or Working Group (WG) to start a new work project. Each of the documents discussed so far has a different pathway through the ISO bureaucratic process. Naturally, the international standard is the most detailed because it may become a de facto law once it is published.

New Work Item Proposal

The first step in any new standard is the proposal that some good practice or new technology should become a documented standard. But in standard circles, one cannot simply propose a new standard; there are special forms that must be obtained and filled out. One must also recruit a significant number of other countries interested in this good idea who will be willing to volunteer to help develop the document. Then the proposal is written up and a New Work Item Proposal (ISO/NWIP) ballot is issued.

All active member countries of a working group get to read the proposal and say whether they think it is a good idea and then maybe recommend a change or two to make it better or broader. If the NWIP ballot is successful—and they usually are—the suggested changes are incorporated in the document and a new document is prepared for ballot. But what kind of document will it be? It could be a Publicly Addressable Specification, a Technical Specification, a Technical Report or even a Guide. Each has different requirements but similar structures. The most common is the Committee Draft International Standard.

Committee Draft International Standard

The next phase is the Committee Draft (ISO/CD). The proposal has been accepted and the required number of nations has agreed to work on the document, and editing begins in earnest. Most of the good idea was captured in the New Work Item Proposal, but now the idea needs to be formatted and wordsmithed into true standards-speak. Sections are called clauses and paragraphs are called sub-clauses, and all of these must be numbered just so, along with figures and any tables (oh, the ISO editors hate those tables).

And the figures—the figures must be prepared as if one were laying out a package design, using vector graphics and such. And we must not—no, we shall not—forget that only certain verbs are allowed in a standard. The verb “shall” means whatever actions follow are mandatory and required to practice the standard. The verb “should” means the following actions will produce a desired result, but one can choose not to follow them.

Again, the Committee Draft will be prepared for a ballot, usually covering six weeks. During that time, the various working group members will read the draft and then prepare additions, corrections or comments on the text. Then, depending on how severe the criticisms are, they will vote to Approve, Disapprove or even Abstain if they do not feel qualified to judge the contents. Often, this process is repeated two, three or more times until the number of corrections becomes small. Then the draft moves to the next phase.

Draft International Standard

After the document has been approved by all working group members at the Committee Draft stage, it will progress to the Draft International Standard (ISO/DIS) stage. There, ISO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland will become involved and the document will be translated into several languages. This is so the draft standard can be read by country members who may not be so fluent in English, the primary language of International Standards. (Lucky for us, but sometimes not so lucky for them.) Imagine sitting in on the editing of a draft standard on terminology and all of the terms are written and defined in phrases that are not your native language. It takes ISO HQ many weeks to produce the translations.

“What is special about the International Standard is that in many countries, the existence of an ISO standard carries the force of law. Businesses that participate in the industry described by the standard are required to adopt and apply the standard in their day-to-day activities.”

So again, a document ballot is prepared and ISO HQ then sends out the Draft International Standard ballot to all the countries who are members of the Technical Committee. Now those outside of the working group get a chance to criticize the document. Normally, it takes only one draft international standard, but sometimes the proposed changes and additions are so great that it is submitted for a second ballot. Then ISO HQ must make all new translations and the process drags on. This is very challenging because ISO allocates only a fixed number of weeks for a standard to be completed. If a working group makes several Committee Draft ballots and then the committee requires two Draft International Standard ballots, the standard could run out of time, the clock will be set back to zero and the process starts all over again at—you guessed it—a New Work Item Proposal ballot.

If the document passes the Draft International Standard ballot, the editor makes all additions and changes recommended by the voting delegations and a new document is born. Well, it is not really new; it is just given a new name—FDIS.

Final Draft International Standard

So, the document is cleaned up once again and is sent out to all members of the Technical Committee. But this time, it is an ISO/FDIS ballot. At this stage, no further technical changes can be made to the document—only editorial corrections can be made. This is usually the shortest of the balloting periods. There are normally very few, if any, corrections to the Final Draft International Standard, and so in about four weeks, the results are reported.

When the Final Draft International Standard is approved, it moves to publication and is available to the public for purchase. The ISO holds copyright on all International Standards and is very protective of those rights. It is strictly forbidden for Working Group or Technical Committee members to reference a document in the process of being developed, and it is also forbidden for either entity to share those documents outside of the Technical Committee without permission from ISO HQ.

Because of this, ISO makes it easy to purchase the standards. Here in the US, they can be purchased from the ANSI webstore, from some technical documents clearing houses like Techstreet or from the Association for Print Technologies’ (formerly NPES) store.

Published International Standards remain in force for at least five years, at which time they must undergo a systematic review. Sometimes, the technology of the good idea may have changed, so the standard should be revised and updated. Other times, things are still good just as they are written and the standard can be reapproved for another five-year period. But eventually, either the standard must be revised or must be withdrawn, and other standards will take its place on the shelf.


It’s not exactly wizardry, but making a new standard is pretty specific and complicated. It will always take between 18 months and 24 months to move a great idea through to becoming an International Standard. But, in the end, it will be worth it, as everyone in the industry will be practicing in a similar and predictable manner. Suppliers know what to supply, buyers know what they will buy and producers know exactly what and how they will take the supplies and turn them into products they can sell.

About the Author

headshot Danny Rich
About the Author: Dr. Danny Rich obtained a master’s degree in physics in 1977 from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, VA, and in 1980 completed a Ph.D. at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In 1998, he joined Sun Chemical Corp to direct the Sun Chemical Color Research Laboratory in the Daniel J. Carlick Technical Center in Carlstadt, NJ. He has been awarded the Nickerson Service award from the Inter-Society Color Council in 1999, the National Printing Ink Manufacturers award for Technical Achievement in 2008, a Thomas Alva Edison award for innovation by the Research Council of New Jersey in 2008, the Robert F. Reed Medal from the Printing Industries of America in 2013 and the Mattiello Memorial Award from the American Coatings Association in 2015. In 2019, he received the Inter-Society Color Council’s Godlove Award, recognizing long-term contributions in the field of color.