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NMU alumna presents research

LUCY JOHNSON

MARQUETTE — Northern Michigan University alumna Lucy Johnson (’10 BS, ’13 MA) recently presented her research on emoji to more than 300 Sony Interactive Entertainment employees, mostly from PlayStation, with others representing Sony Music and Sony Productions.

Her remote talk took place on March 30 as part of an invited speaker series for Women’s History Month. She is an assistant professor of digital literacies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Johnson’s talk, “How We Look Dictates What We See: The Politics of Image Design,” considers how emoji are designed and how they are used as content. She used a historical approach to understand their creation, changes over time and the decision-makers surrounding them.

“What my research has found is that emoji have slowly been disconnected from their cultural origin in Japan, and largely controlled and regulated by Western companies like Apple, IBM and Google,” Johnson said. “As someone deeply invested in cultural rhetoric and digital ethics, I question the integrity of removing or limiting cultural origin from communication design, and how that may create a default user for visual communication that hinders accessibility and inclusion, especially within a global context.”

During the presentation, Johnson extended her critique of emoji to other image communication systems such as GIFs and memes. From there, a 15-minute Q&A was offered to further discuss how Johnson’s research extends to PlayStation employee communication platforms like Slack, as well as ethical image design for various technologies, games and platforms.

“My research is important to me because the digital is increasingly connected to how we live, work and connect with others,” said Johnson. “In a day and age where our attention to advocacy, inclusion and accessibility are at the forefront of policy and politics, we should also consider the ways in which our communication symbols and platforms are impacted by these issues, too.”  

Johnson earned her bachelor’s degree in English and master’s degree in English pedagogy from NMU. At UW-Eau Claire, she teaches courses in visual rhetoric, technical communication and digital media.

“I believe I have a responsibility to teach students about ethical communication and image design,” she said. “Emoji are an accessible entry point into these topics with students because of their popularity and ubiquitous nature.

“My experience at NMU has been integral to both my research and teaching. The courses I had the privilege of taking in NMU’s English department and the opportunity I had as a graduate teaching assistant allowed me to explore the topics of communication design, advocacy and inclusion from various viewpoints. I do not believe I would be the teacher and scholar that I am today without the exceptional education and mentoring I received at NMU.”

Johnson earned her doctoral degree in English with a concentration in rhetoric and composition from Washington State University. She also holds a certificate in digital humanities and culture from there.

She serves as a digital literacy specialist, mentoring faculty in online course design, digital pedagogy and digital literacy. During the shift to remote learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson was formally recognized by UW-Eau Claire’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning for her efforts to support faculty in effective online course design.

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