Standards and Design

We tend to think of National Standards and design as being from two different worlds. We think of design as being at the ‘leading edge’ finding new solutions to problems, a more proactive approach to problem solving. Standards on the other hand, are considered to be reactive, since by definition, these documents are developed by groups (or committees) and describe existing best practices or solutions to problems.

Although the two groups approach problems from a different perspective, the two worlds are moving closer together and the work done by designers is of benefit to standards developers in developing more relevant standards. The body of knowledge contained in standards is of significant benefit to designers to ensure that their products move from good ideas to market more efficiently.

The Interdependance of Design and Standards

More and more frequently,  the design world is starting to make direct reference to standards. Many markets are starting to demand socially responsible design – meaning that new products need to be able to demonstrate certain qualities to the purchasers that may not necessarily be evident in the product itself, for example:

  • the environmental impact during the design life of the product,
  • the accessibility of the product to disabled people,
  • the safety of the product, particularly when used by children,
  • the safety or environmental impact of the processes used to assemble or manufacture the product, or
  • the standards or test methods that need to be followed in order to meet certain labeling requirements.

Standards can be regarded as a valuable resource for designers and in many cases are becoming a valuable part of a designer’s toolbox when considering solutions to certain problems. There are a number of examples where the use of standards can make the life of designers and developers easier, since certain problems could already be described.

Product safety

In the area of product safety, many standards have been developed and many aspects of both the safety of the product, as well as the safe installation and use of certain products have been described. In many cases, the standards also describe some minimum performance characteristics. Examples of such standards include the numerous electrical appliance standards that do not necessarily describe what an appliance should look like, but describe how it should be used (safely), as well as what it should do.

Product interoperability

Products very seldom exist in isolation. They may work with other products or services or they could be made up of components and inputs that are not necessarily redesigned each time. The standards for these associated products can help the designer to develop a product that will work both effectively and efficiently. By way of example, electronic products can have standard switches plugs, printed circuits and chips incorporated into their design which would assist in the speed to market and the lowering of manufacturing costs.


The marking of products follows conventions and norms that have been established over time. Many of these are laid down in standards.  It saves a lot of time and money when doing market research if the designer can make use of existing resources such as the ISO 7000 database standard on graphical symbols to mark the product or its components.


Products often also require that information about the product that cannot necessarily be determined by examining the product itself, be contained in a label. Often the requirements for product labels are contained in legislation, but designers and manufacturers may choose to provide additional information depending on the intended market of the product.

These labels can include things such as the environmental impact of the product or manufacturing process (eg ‘dolphin friendly’ tuna, or wood products from a sustainable forest) or they can describe the composition of the product (such as the nutrient labelling of food products or composition of plastics), or the labelling may include aspects such as the performance rating of the product under certain conditions (eg the energy rating or fuel efficiency of products).  In order to make these claims, the manufacturer will need to make use of standard tests and in specific cases, some form of third party attestation may also be required.


Many standards contain the information about the repeated use of certain products. In some cases these can be in the form of requirements such as the accessibility of certain products to people with disabilities, or the safe use of the product in certain environments. Designers can make use of this resource rather than having to research these issues every time.

The Development of Standards

One of the key pillars of standards is that they should be relevant and useful. It makes no sense for the national standards body to develop a set of standards that are not used in the market place, either because they add no value or because they hinder the development of new products.

Standards can provide a valuable resource in terms of defining the problem space in which a product is designed, by providing a set of documents that describe the constraints, as well as the output requirements for the finished product.

A standards developing organisation such as the  South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) strives  not to restrict innovation when drafting standards and not to describe the products in terms of their outputs or what they should do. There is a fine line  between being flexible enough to allow for the development of new products that do not yet exist, while still being able to verify that the product does indeed conform to the standard.

Standards development organisations worldwide, recognise that we do get this wrong at times – sometimes standards may restrict certain new products, or technology in a field changes over time. For this reason, standards may be amended and are also regularly  reviewed for relevance (every five years in the case of Standards South Africa, a division of the SABS).

Standards can reflect the changes in the market place and the problems that designers are facing if these people participate in the standards development process. Standards developers and designers need to work together to ensure that the standards that we have are relevant, that they allow for innovation and that they cover the areas that need to be covered.

Standards as a Marketing Tool

The introduction of new products to the market often requires more than exciting and innovative design. Many purchasers are risk-averse and would like to know that the product conforms to certain minimum requirements or standards. It therefore pays to have some form of compliance statement as part of the marketing strategy.

In areas of new product development, it may also form part of the marketing strategy to have your product described as the national or international standard for this specific product so that your product complies to the standard at least or at most, your product complies but your [future] competitors’ do not.

Designers should not only look at standards as a constraint on their new designs, but should regard the incorporation of standards as a way to increase the competitive potential of their designs.

In summary, as more new products enter the market at an increasing rate, it is becoming apparent that keeping abreast with the latest design trends can lead to better standards. At the same time, designers can deliver better and more efficient design by keeping abreast with the latest developments in standards.

Standardisers and designers should work more closely together in order to provide innovative and relevant products that get to the market place.

To contact the Standards Division of the SABS send an e-mail to