This article is in response to the bloom of discussion around the rock star phenomenon in the design sphere near the end of March 2010. I originally posted it as a comment on the Kicker weblog. I have slightly edited this version to clarify.

I've been questioning the value of the rock star ethos in the disciplines of design and software development for a few years now. The rock star is a convenient package for a number of desirable traits but I believe it carries with it excess baggage that has the potential to cause more harm than good.

The first is the Matthew effect, that attention begets attention, which is a natural phenomenon and can occur for any number of reasons. It enables people like Philippe Starck to saunter into a board room and successfully pitch something that only a few other people like him could do. But as an owner of a few Starck pieces, I can vouch that it does not mean those somethings are necessarily going to be any good. Despite that, there is a finite number of board rooms, so every successful Starck pitch means one less non-Starck object gets produced.

Getting a job with Apple, Alessi or Adaptive Path is a public-facing vote of confidence cast by a small group of people. In this regard it is roughly equivalent to graduating from Art Center, RISD, New School or whatever. Or winning an award. It's credentialism, and it only says that you managed to convince certain responsible individuals of your merits. It cannot be taken for granted that whatever convinced them is useful in the greater public sphere. And since attention begets attention, such laurels are extremely handy for catapulting forward your career, just as prestigious education and honours lend themselves to prestigious employment and deals.

A peculiar side effect of all this attention is the expert trap. As a rock star, people look to you for answers, and at all times you have to be ready with one. Anything, as long as it sounds plausible. To admit ignorance, or even to hint at it, threatens to burst your bubble of expert credibility and seriously endanger your position.

We have a strong mythology of the lone hero swooping in to save the day against impossible odds, often to his own great sacrifice. Luckily the sacrifice of the modern hero-martyr typically only takes the form of lost sleep and a Red Bull hangover, but it can be construed as a mutant form of individualism. The prevailing attitude is leave everything to me, whether or not you could realistically succeed on your own. Taking on such liabilities is extremely stressful. It is also a particularly confusing condition because effective creative work entails understanding, and understanding is a private activity.

There are archetypes who accept the private nature of their work but understand its role in society. Consider the master craftsman, whose livelihood and indeed whose life is about creating useful objects for ordinary people, that is to say non-craftsmen. Closer still to the rock star is the virtuoso performer, who does so to enrich the lives of her audience. Genuine virtuosi perform, however, and then they go home. A rock star's life is itself a performance.

A real rock star is actually kind of a miserable creature. A common thread among all but a handful of rock stars is that they don't own their success. While they indeed enjoy no shortage of creature comforts, they principally exist to line the pockets of others. They are sharecroppers, courtiers, employees. They also tend not to last very long.

Rock stars are also naturally insular, arguably antisocial. They can't operate in regular society. They couldn't so much as go grocery shopping without being harassed by fans. As such they only bother to consort with their own kind, their discourse inadvertently degrading into an echo chamber of mutual congratulation. For a business sector with a uniquely voracious appetite for diverse ideas, this is tantamount to choking.

There are perfectly viable alternative archetypes to the rock star, like the master craftsperson or the virtuoso performer. These people are respected but they are not adulated. They can walk down the street without an entourage. They integrate with society, rather than ride in a litter on top of it. They have friends rather than fans. Most importantly, they perform to be substantively useful to the people around them, not to masturbate their egos.