The dangers of too much “Black Hat” thinking.

OK, there’s a risk of slipping into management consultant mode with this, but stick with me, I promise it’s worth it! The notion of Black Hat thinking isn’t some scary, special forces-esque idea, or a reference to Johnny Cash, although the idea of Johnny Cash teaming up with the special forces has all sorts of potential! It comes from author, thinker, and pioneer Edward De Bono. Years ago he came up with the idea of employing a device he called the “Six Thinking Hats” – different modes you could switch between when examining an idea – Red for emotions, white for information, green for creativity and so on. It’s a very effective way to allow an idea or concept to flourish, and to make sure you, or a group you’re working with allow an idea to be examined from many different sides, rather than just take a narrow focus. If you’ve never encountered it before, I’d recommend the book, or even just reading up on it online.

The “Black Hat” is concerned with being cautious and realistic – practical and pragmatic – and of course, it’s essential, as without it, some dangerous ideas might be allowed to come to life that contain arsenic, explode when you plug them in, cause cancer and so on. You can see the importance of such an approach!

The problem is, the “Black Hat” gets used too often – for many people it’s their default mode – and whilst being practical and pragmatic is useful – it’s a slippery and easy slope to just being negative for the sake of it, and criticising relentlessly. It’s particularly toxic in the realm of ideas and creativity.

the dangers of black hat thinking
The initial suggestion of having the bride carry the groom over the threshold in high heels would probably get quickly stifled with a bit of Black Hat thinking. Until you run with it, and realise the bride is incredibly strong, and has been trained to do just this sort of thing!

I am as guilty as the next person of stifling an idea before it’s even had a chance to grow. God knows how many shots have never been taken, or concepts never fully developed because my black hat was on, and all I could see was the problems. If this sounds familiar to you, I’ve got a couple of suggestions:

First off, make a conscious effort to only employ the “black hat” later in the process. Let an idea grow and develop, no matter how insane it may seem. The time to start working out the practical, pragmatic side of things is later on in the development of the idea.

Second, when you’ve come up with an idea that seems fantastic – something really ambitious and almost out of reach – the sort of thing that’s a great, big target for Black Hat thinking – stop. Before you start to get practical, write down or sketch out how the idea could be created if every aspect was perfect. Imagine if you had an infinite budget, the best location, the perfect kit, the ideal subject, fantastic weather – take each element of your idea in turn and conjure up idealised versions of them.

Smashing sheets of ice.
Our initial idea was to have Tom punch through a sheet of glass. This was quickly stopped by some Black Hat thinking which pointed out it would be quite dangerous, but we kept the basic concept, and simply created some “ice glass” instead.

Now, you can gently start to apply some black hat to the idea, but only gently. Don’t dismiss the idea completely just because you can’t get perfection, just walk things back step by step from that perfect ideal, until you reach something you can work with.

Let’s say your idea is to create a heroic, dramatically lit image of a professional rugby player, scoring a drop goal at Twickenham. Right away, your brain says “you’ll never be able to get any time with a professional, or get into Twickenham to shoot, and you don’t have enough kit to create the shot you want.” Here’s where the process normally stops – you just give up, and the idea gets filed in that huge dumping ground of “ideas that were great, but weren’t going to fly”.

Why not walk things back one step at a time? Starting with the subject, you may well be able to work with a local team, several of whom might be able to kick a convincing drop goal. You may not have all the location lighting kit in your possession to create the dramatic “day for night” look you’re after – but surely you can borrow or rent some. You probably can’t get into Twickenham, but I’ll bet it’s not impossible to get hold of an image of the interior – there’ll be lots on stock library sites – and then with a bit of Photoshop, you can composite your player in.

Cat Meffan suspended by light.
My original idea was to have Cat swinging from lights, and whilst that wasn’t actually possible, it didn’t take much walking back from “perfection” to get to the result I actually achieved.

So, an idea that would have ended up gathering dust at the back of your mind ends up becoming at best a really impressive image for the portfolio, and at worst a really good learning experience. Both of which are better results than regretting not shooting it because you had your black hat on!

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