Beginner’s Mind : Design Mind

Julio Bermudez  (
College of Architecture+Planning — University of Utah

(Presented at the 21st Beginning Design Student Conference —San Antono, Feb. 2005— and at the Annual ACSA Meeting in Salt Lake City —March 2006)


"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." Shunryu Suzuki (1973, p.21)

 It is impossible for me to consider the title and spirit of this conference without seeing strong parallels to Shinryu Suzuki’s famous book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”. In that work, Zen Master Suzuki describes the beginner’s mind as open, fresh, and boundlessly creative because of its freedom from opinion, prejudice and expectations. Having no thought of self or achievement, the beginner’s mind dwells in ‘emptiness’ —an emptiness that in Zen is not vacuum-like but rather full of potentiality for birthing. For Suzuki, “if your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.” (ibid, p.21) “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” is a book with a mission: to make us return time and time again to the realization that maintaining an innocent or ‘original’ mind is the secret to act and experience life at our fullest. So high does Suzuki regards the ‘beginner’s mind’ that he equates it with the Zen mind itself!

I think that most designers wouldn’t find it hard to agree with Suzuki’s arguments, especially when considering design excellence.  Who would dispute that great design usually results from applying such beginner’s mind? In a way, beginner’s mind is design mind at its best.  From this perspective, it is not surprisingly to find design teachers working hard at creating the circumstances for such mind to arise. This brings the discussion close to home. For, of all design educators, few know more of the blessing and difficulty inherent in the beginner’ mind than us, beginning design instructors. 

In effect, our students have the most unspoiled, uneducated, and free minds than anybody engaged in professional design will ever have thereafter.  In their natural ignorance, spontaneity, and naiveté they are incredibly close to accessing the beginner’s mind that Suzuki is talking about and, we know, delivers us to great design work. Yet, by the same token, they are also very near the pitfalls of incompetence, confusion, frustration, and banality. It is teaching (hopefully ours) that will break the equilibrium in favor of the beginner’s mind.  And since these students will probably never be closer to accessing their beginner’s mind than at this time, our job as teachers acquires remarkable educational, professional, and philosophical responsibilities. Can we make the best of such an unique opportunity? How? Yet, this already challenging duty gets even more difficult.  For we are called to educate beginners in the practice of design, which invariably means (in the short term) the very loss of the student’s innate ingenuity and freedom. We are asked to teach students how to become design experts without corrupting their beginner’s mind!

This great pedagogic paradox is nothing new to Zen. For millennia, Zen has been successfully training people in the practice of attaining and maintaining a beginner’s mind amidst real life conditions. As a result, there is much to learn from Zen when addressing this essential topic. This paper will therefore look at the parallels between Zen teaching and beginning design teaching.

Let me first acknowledge the difficulty of this enterprise. If not careful, I could easily fall into superficialities, broad and useless generalizations, or inappropriate discussions in the context of our present academic inquiry (e.g., religiosity, spirituality, etc.). However, and recognizing such dangers, I feel qualified and ready to take the risk. I have over 15 years of experience in teaching beginning design studio, been seriously practicing Zen for the past 8, and obtained a doctoral degree in Education. Indeed, literature in contemporary learning theories (e.g., constructivism), epistemology, and brain/mind science further encourages me in this direction as they suggest educational principles, tactics, and efforts with remarkable correlations with Zen teachings.

I will use the insights offered in “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” to lead the discussion in three areas. First, I will look into the general relationship between Zen mind and design mind through their common interest in the beginner’s mind. Second, I will consider the function of thinking and knowing in designing with a beginner’s mind. Third and last, I will look into how effort and aim enter a design process illuminated by such mind.  I will not only make use of diverse literature to support the consideration of Suzuki’s points, but also, when appropriate, present actual design studio pedagogies and student’s work to back my arguments.

In short, the goal of this work is twofold:
(1)  the utilization of Zen insights to foster new understandings, pedagogies, and criticisms in beginning design education,
(2)  the development of a scholarly method to make Zen academically accessible, debatable, testable, and therefore useful to design instruction and related fields such educational psychology, philosophy of education, epistemology, etc.

(c) copyright Julio Bermudez 2005. All rights reserved.


Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1973)