The Six Hats of Critical Thinking and How to Use Them

The critical thinking process can be complex and may be confusing. One of the proven successful methods to organize both group and individual thinking is the six thinking hats, also known as De Bono’s six thinking hats. The method has been first introduced in 1985 by Edward De Bono in a book with the same name.

Human thinking is unstructured and reinforced in a way that different types of thoughts can drive individuals and design thinking groups to think an unorganized ways, which can lead to unexpected results. The six thinking hats introduced the thinking process to follow specific directions when necessary. The thinking hat is a metaphor that represents each thinking direction as the hats can be easily put on and taken off.

While the six thinking hats method does not follow ordinary human thinking, it can be used during a specific critical thinking session to achieve specific targets such as solving problems, discussing argument, in-depth analysis for planning process and running the creative thinking process. Although the method has been introduced for companies to improve the return of investment (ROI), it can successfully be applied to school students for the use of design thinking in education. The Microsoft education sector introduced this method for schools in a workshop presentation, De Bono’s six thinking hats.

The Six Thinking Hats
De Bono’s six thinking hats (Source: Micorsoft)

The Six Thinking Hats

Solving problems using the six thinking hats model requires looking to at problems with different types of thinking, each type is represented with a hat color, and at the end of the discussion session stakeholders should have better understanding to the problem from different approaches in order to reach creative and innovative solutions. During each critical thinking discussion meeting the facilitator determines which hat should be worn in specific part of the discussion as following:

White hat

This hat represents the facts and the information available about the problem or the argument. During this part, the stockholders only share the information about the problem and take notes with it. No further development in the thinking process should be done. Questions in this part can be “what is the available information?” and “what are the facts we have?”

Yellow hat

In contrast to the black hat, the yellow hat supposes to reflect the sun or an optimistic attitude. The stakeholders think from an optimistic point of view about the problem or suggestion. It helps to spotlight the advantages and benefits of the suggestions. During this the questions which are asked are “what are the advantages of applying the solution?” and “why do you think it is workable?”

Black hat

Wearing the black hat drives attendees to think about the problem or suggestion cautiously and defensively. The aim of this part is to identify the cons of the suggestion and the disadvantages and why the suggestion may not work based on logical reasons.

Focusing on the warnings, risks or cautions, this helps the stakeholders to isolate the reasoning and think in the solutions in the yellow one. The question that can be asked during this discussion “what are the risks?” and “why is the suggestion not working?”

Red hat

The emotions hat presents the stakeholders feelings about the problem and their gut reactions toward it. The target of using this hat is to understand the different emotional reactions such as love, hate, like and dislike. The red hat does not aim to understand the reason behind these feelings. The questions that can be asked during this part is “what do you feel about the suggestion?” and “what is your gut reaction toward the suggestion?”

Green hat

This represents the creative thinking part of the discussion. During the critical thinking discussion, this hat fuels the stakeholders’ thinking to innovate a thinking creative solution for the problems or look to the suggestions from a creative perspective. Creative tools can be applied to drive creativity during the conversations such as the Lego Serious Play and brainstorming techniques.

Blue hat

This is the process control plan where the meeting leaders manage difficulties during the discussions. It makes sure that the guidelines of the six thinking hat process is applied. This hat can be used to drive the thinking process to better routes. For example, if there are no ideas, the facilitators can direct the discussion to the green hat route.

The blue hat is a control hat during the critical thinking discussions, it can also act as a moderation hat before and after each circle of thinking.

While the resources did not indicate a specific sequence between the hats, the sequence indicated above is similar to De Bono’s six thinking hats website.

A Scenario of Applying the Six Thinking Hats

The six thinking hats can be applied to different scenarios based on the aim of the discussion. Furthermore, it can be applied on an educational level to teach students creative thinking and how to build solutions based on in-depth understanding to problems. One of the scenarios that involves applying the six thinking hats is the redesign of a product package, so the flow would go as following:

The facilitators ask the stakeholders to put the white hat to discuss the facts associated with the suggestion such as “what is the current package look like?”,what is the design for competitor’s package?” and “what are consumer feedback about the current package?” Then, the yellow hat is worn to identify the advantages of the redesign process and the product can benefit from the changes in the design. The discussion moderator can ask questions such as “what are the benefits of the redesign?” and “what are the positive impact of the redesign“

Then the team wears the black hat to discuss the disadvantages of applying the design change and how it can impact badly on product sales and the marketing target. During this part, the stakeholders discuss the risks that can be faced when the package redesign is applied. Then the red hat reflects the stakeholder’s emotional feelings toward the current package and in changing it. Do they like the current package? How do they feel regarding changing it? And what do the end consumers may feel toward this change?

Then the green hat is worn to think of the design from a creative and innovative perspective. This part helps the stakeholders to think about the new design and how they reflect on the previous discussions parts on the new design or the current one. During the above process the blue hat can be worn by the chair to moderate the discussion and direct it in a way that can facilitate the session.

The six thinking hats method provides a parallel thinking model to get the most out of critical thinking discussions. By organizing the thinking process using the metaphor of the six hats, stakeholders can ensure that thinking process is covering the topic from different approaches and point of views. This organized thinking approach occurs in a small period of time during the discussion to reach the best possible output of the design thinking process. While the six thinking hats method is discussed separately from the design thinking process, both work closely toward building creative solutions and innovative approaches for solving problems.

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Rafiq Elmansy

Rafiq Elmansy is the founder of Designorate.com, author, and design and innovation consultant. He is an affiliated faculty teaching design at the American University in Cairo. He holds a master degree in Design Management with Distinction from Staffordshire University, UK. He has more than 17 years experience in the field of UXD and interaction design, and his books are published by John Wiley, O’Reilly Media and Taylor and Francis. He is also a contributor at the Design Management Review. Rafiq is a jury board member for the A'Design Awards, Poster for Tomorrow, and Adobe Achievements Awards. His design artwork was exhibited in many locations including Croatia, South Africa, Brazil, and Spain.