Essays & Articles


Designing the Infrastructure

Column written for © CACM. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. It may be redistributed for non-commercial use only, provided this paragraph is included. The definitive version was published as Norman, D. A. (2009). Designing the infrastructure. _Interactions, volume 16, issue _4, pages 66-69.

We live embedded within a supporting network of technology, much of it invisible but essential to our existence. Some infrastructure is mundane, such as the structures that provide water, gas, and electricity and carry away the waste as sewage or garbage. Some is more profound, such as the institutions of business, government, and education. But all are sustained by a ever-growing network of services and facilities. The result is a colossal that threatens to overwhelm society. Huge expanses of earth paved over for cities and highways, for parking lots and playgrounds. Under the streets lies an entangled mess of wires, cables, pipes and passageways. (See Hayes, 2005).

We tend to ignore the infrastructure when we design. Infrastructure is often ugly, such as the mass of wires overhead or the pipes and valves in front of many buildings. Its visible presence forces us to think about things we would prefer to ignore. We prefer to design our new devices without concern for the wires and cables needed to support them.

Infrastructure must be serviced, upgraded or superseded, and with time, it becomes increasingly expensive, difficult, or even impossible to maintain. Eventually we become slaves to old-fashioned infrastructure, for once the fabric of a technological architecture has been established, society is so dependent upon it that it is difficult or impossible to replace, even when far better technologies exist.

Often multiple standards and techniques arise for the same service. Agreement upon a common standard is often difficult, fraught with technical, political, and business prejudice. As a result, we often end up with multiple, non-compatible standards for the same goal. For example, today there is a wide variety of ways to pay for things. I just spent a month in Korea where taxi cabs allowed one to pay with an interesting variety of technologies: money; bank credit cards and cards for the public transportation system, each with embedded chips that could be placed upon a pad to transfer funds; cellphones with embedded chips that could be placed upon a different pad to transfer funds; and bank credit or debit cards that lacked the chips, but whose magnetic strip could be read by a reader and wirelessly checked. The payment system also included a digital taxi meter that displayed the fare and a printer that provided receipts. The infrastructure for payment had so many separate pieces of equipment that there was little room left for anything else, although as you can see in Figure 1, the driver still managed to add a navigation system and water bottle in addition to the built-in infrastructure of radio, clock, HVAC controls, and driving controls. The infrastructure continues outside of the taxi: Within seconds of payment via my debit card, I received a text message on my phone from my bank, confirming the payment.

**Figure 1: Taxicab fare-paying infrastructure.**From the center bottom, moving up: The pad where one touches a credit or transportation card with transaction chip; The taxi meter, with calculator keypad for entering the amount of cash payment; the pad where one touches the transaction-enabled cellphone; just to its right is the credit card-reading device for normal credit cards with magnetic stripe complete with keypad which I assume is for manual entry or security codes; just above the credit card reader is a printer to provide receipts for any of the payment methods; at the very top center is the navigation system, this time displaying map information instead of the commonly seen television show. I have skipped over the auto’s infrastructure, including radio, tape, and CD player, HVAC controls, shifting controls and steering wheel, all of which are also visible in this photograph.

Ah, infrastructure. Without it, we couldn’t function. It is the hidden underpinnings of modern society. Under the streets we have sewers, water and gas lines, cables for telephone, cable TV, and electric power. Some of it is outside, massive wires crossing the otherwise pristine terrain. The hidden infrastructure is not so hidden. In part because it is so massive, in part because each year some other technology emerges that requires its own infrastructure. Putting the infrastructure in place is a daunting exercise. Maintaining it is even more daunting, and oftentimes not carried out, at least not until our bridges collapse, water mains burst, sewerage overflows, and power and communication fails.

Even nature plays a role. See the infrastructure in Figure 2? With one rather small exception, everything in that photograph is infrastructure. Roads and curbs, bike and walking paths, light poles, traffic light, direction signs, traffic light controller, pedestrian crossing markings, and the Korean flag, for this was taken just after a national holiday. Even the trees are infrastructure, for they have been carefully planted in these locations and artistically trimmed. Even the birds get into the act, for the big clump toward the top of the tallest tree is the infrastructure for the Magpie: the magpie’s nest.

Some of the infrastructure provides the necessary affordance for the others: the poles provide the supporting affordances for the lights, wind turbine, solar cells, and signs. Some infrastructure serves as signifiers. The signs are deliberate, intentional signifiers. The Magpie nest is an unintentional signifier, for wherever the nest is seen, it indicates that there are apt to be a pair of Magpies in the vicinity. If you examine the figure carefully, you can see one of the proud owners of the nest perched at the very top of the tree. The Magpie is the only item that is not infrastructure in the picture. Even the background, barely visible in the figure, is of a river and flood plain, which also provides jogging, bicycling paths and picnic and playing fields during non-flood times. Just as the trees are artificially placed in their location for aesthetic purposes, the river is carefully controlled as well, with high banks, and numerous dams and spillways. The river serves several functions, as essential infrastructure for the waterway and flood control. Finally, on the opposite bank of the river (dimly visible in the background), one can see buildings, roads, and other infrastructure of modern life.

If we do not tend to the appropriate design of infrastructure, it is apt to collapse. Every year, the infrastructure requirements grow. This is for many reasons: more people demand services; more services are developed and provided to people; competitive forces proved new ways of distributing old services, but requiring new infrastructure; existing infrastructure needs maintenance; and the act of maintaining one class of infrastructure often damages others. Thus, adding a new underground service requires digging up roads and sidewalks, disrupting foot and vehicle traffic. The digging can accidentally cut power or communication cables, puncture water, gas, or sewerage pipes. As a result, whenever one infrastructure is worked upon, numerous other providers have to be on the alert. As a result, getting permission to service, maintain, upgrade or install infrastructure often requires permission of and coordination with numerous local, regional, and national government agencies as well as the many different service providers. In cases of emergencies when there are accidents or deliberate sabotage, the number of agencies that have to be involved are so numerous that their responses are hampered by the difficulty in coordination and communication. Often, there is insufficient space to provide the new services, so political fights erupt over who has rights. Citizens demand the services, as long as the infrastructure is not visible to them,. “We want better cellular telephone service,” they say, “but don’t you dare put that ugly and dangerously radiating antenna near me.” Hence the phrase NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard.”

What is the designer to do? We must turn our attention to infrastructural needs. We must insist on standards or where we lack the political power to enforce them, invent methods that allow competing systems to co-exist without a proliferation of technologies. We can, for example, insist upon standard plugs and cables, even if the signal structure carried by them differs (although it would be best to solve that problem as well). We need to pay attention to the A’s of infrastructure: aesthetics, access, and affordability. If we fail, our technological societies might very well come tumbling down. We will devote more space, time, and energy to providing and maintaining infrastructure than to the services they are intended to provide.

The infrastructure of our computer technology can be overwhelming. My computer’s infrastructure gets more complex each year, and all this complexity requires attention. Upgrades and security modifications. The need to change passwords for many accounts, and the need to keep my list of passwords up to date, synchronized across all my computers. The need to reboot, defragment, do continual scans for viruses and malcontent software, the need to renew batteries and accounts. Backup files. It seems that every day I spend considerable time on the infrastructure.

Because the ability to maintain infrastructure is seldom designed with care, each simple activity can become daunting. Each new device purchased requires installation, complete with registration, agreeing to unread but undoubtedly onerous legal conditions, and finding space and sockets for all the communication and power cable. Did I mention that these invariably require stopping all work, saving everything, and rebooting, after typing in a long, complex registration number? I should have.

_I am reminded of the way by which our physical infrastructures get modified. New sooner does a street get paved than a new set of workers arrive to cut holes and trenches in the street so that they can add their own layers underneath the street. Each trench requires a myriad of permissions. The trench is dangerous, so signs warning of the danger must be posted. In some cases, the signs can be dangerous, so they require flashing lights to attract attention to them. Even that is not enough so sometimes it is necessary to add signs warning of the warning signs.


Infrastructure is taken for granted. It is time it is given as much attention as the primary applications, else maintaining the infrastructure will itself become our primary activity. In an earlier column I proclaimed Norman’s Law:

Norman’s law: The number of hours per day spent maintaining our equipment doubles every 18 months.

Spend an hour a day maintaining infrastructure today and within 5 iterations — slightly over 7 years – the day will be completely filled.

It is time to work on infrastructure. It threatens to dominate our lives with ugliness, frustration, and work. We need to spend more time on the designs for infrastructure. We need to make it more attractive, more accessible, and easier to maintain. Infrastructure is intended to be hidden, to provide the foundation for everyday life. If we do not respond, it will dominate our lives, preventing us attending to our priory concerns and interests and instead, just keeping ahead of the maintenance demands.


Hayes, B. (2005). Infrastructure: A field guide to the industrial landscape. New York: W.W. Norton.

Don Norman wears many hats, including co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, Professor at Northwestern University, Visiting Professor at KAIST (South Korea), and author, his latest book being The Design of Future Things. He lives at