While a student at Northwestern University, where she earned a degree in radio, television, and film, Johnson began developing her "unique signature style of cutout animation using construction paper and everyday objects and textures". She was a freelance animator in the early 1990s when cable television network Nickelodeon wanted to create a new television show for preschoolers. She was already well known as a designer, animator, writer, producer, and director for children's television. In 1994, Johnson, along with producer Angela Santomero and director Todd Kessler, which Nickelodeon executive Brown Johnson called a "green creative team", created the series Blue's Clues. According to writer Diane Tracy, Johnson, Santomero, and Kessler did not possess traditional backgrounds of most producers of children's programs, but "did possess an amazing combination of talents, backgrounds, and personal attributes". Also, according to Tracy, Johnson would "change the look of preschool children's television". Johnson reported that she was cast as the voice of Blue, the show's main animated character because out of the show's crew, she sounded the most like a dog.
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