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@samanpwbb samanpwbb/
Last active Aug 29, 2015

What would you like to do?

St. Olaf Recent Grad Publication – Background Questions (notes are fine – don’t worry about the prose)


Saman Bemel-Benrud

Telephone Number:


Current Job Title/Company or Organization:

Designer, Mapbox

Major(s) and concentration(s):

Studio Art major

Main extracurriculars (just the highlights):

Visual director, Manitou Messenger Finstad Grant recipient for T-shirt design company

Study abroad?

None. I knew it'd be wasted on me. All I would have wanted to do was stay in my room and draw.

Internship(s) or research?

5th year apprentice in the art department

Most important classes (now that you can look back)? Why?

There were two specific classes that, looking back, meant the most to me:

First of all, I would never have majored in art if I wouldn’t have taken an intro level drawing class taught by John Saurer my freshman year. Even though I always like to draw, I figured I’d be a political science or english major. I was alright at drawing, but in middle school and high school I was never one of the art kids. I was too busy trying to cram my schedule full of as many AP classes as I could. That drawing class made me realize that I could actually study art in college, which didn’t even register to me before. On a deeper level, it also made me realize that art is no different from anything else in that the more time you spend doing it and thinking about it, the better you’re going to get at it. That's a lesson that carried me through the next four years.

A political science my junior year taught by one of my favorite professors, Douglas Casson had an equally large impact. It was a upper level theory seminar on religion and politics. At the time, I was on track to majoring in political science. Up until then, reading political philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Thomas Hobbes just felt so profound - like I was uncovering truth about what it meant to be human in the pages of their books. Casson probably contributed to this feeling quite a bit. However, this seminar was different. We were reading more contemporary authors who were making more specific and more rigorous arguments, and I just lost interest. Deep into researching my 20-odd page seminar paper, I started skipping the library and spending my evenings in the studio instead. I did manage to finish the paper, albeit a week or two late. I turned it in along with a note about how I was planning to drop my political science major.

Influential professor(s)/staff? Why?

Douglas Casson in the political science department because he knew why the material he taught mattered. The most important thing for him was to get his students to realize why it mattered too. In a lot of ways, getting introduced to political theory led the way to my later interest in art theory, so Casson meant a lot to my intellectual development.

Matthew Rohn in the art history department for his total expertise in all things art history. He got me excited about art and opened my eyes to what is possible.

Mary Griep, John Sauer, and Wendell Arneson in the art department, because all of them both held me to high standards and gave me space to do my own thing.

What do you do in your day job? (Not so much the tasks as the purpose and impact.)

I'm a designer at a technology company that builds tools to help designers and developers do more with maps. We also design maps ourselves. Our maps are put to use in apps like Pinterest and foursquare, on news sites like USA Today and the Financial times, and even some old school mapping companies like National Geographic use Mapbox's tools to design maps.

I'm involved in all sorts of things at Mapbox, from branding to illustration to map design, but most often, I play the role of product designer on projects. I concept tools and then work with developers to bring them to life. In the last year, I worked alongside teams to design a mobile app called meattext, a map data editor for openstreetmap, and a new version of the Mapbox editor.

How do your liberal arts skills apply to the work you’re doing now?

College was excellent practice for what I do today. A liberal arts education is all about learning how to understand and solve problems, and then clearly communicate solutions. That's exactly what I do as a designer.

Have Ole connections opened any doors?

While I was still a student, I received a business grant from the school to start a T-shirt business. This gave me an opportunity to take on a lot of the same kinds of problems I solve in my job today. Not only did I design my first website, but I also had to constantly make decisions about how to maximize impact and find ways to take a business venture and make sure I was able to spent time on the parts that mattered most to me.

What was the path from St. Olaf to your current job/grad school/adventure?

A company called Development Seed hired me during my senior year at St. Olaf. That company eventually spun off to become Mapbox. So for me, the path has been straightforward. I worked remotely for a couple years from Minnesota, then moved to DC in 2012.

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