The Journey Of Making Tofino: A West Coast Swiss Typeface

Tofino is a wild place on the coast of British Columbia where waves eternally pound the shore, trees bow to the gales, and rain seems to penetrate even the most waterproof boots.

I spent a week in Tofino in the middle of November 2014. For most of my stay I was curled up in front of the cozy glow of my computer screen, earl grey tea in hand. A major reason for the trip was to take some time away from my day job to work on the typeface I’d been thinking about starting for months.

In my search for starting places, I had found an old 1922 specimen from Richard Gans Fundicion Tipographica, a type foundry in Madrid. They mostly imported typefaces of German design for the Spanish market. They were using Grotesca Ideal as the small, descriptive labeling text throughout the specimen. I enjoyed the slightly squared, condensed shapes and thought they would make a great workhorse typeface that would be well suited to a screen environment.

All Photos by Mackenzie Duncan

The shapes quickly started to diverge from their inspiration as I normalized all the weird details and created more consistency in the design. I was working to make it more neutral in layouts; I wanted Tofino to be a team player that didn’t show off too much, but still did everything with just enough flare. The concept of West Coast Swiss was born.

Swiss style is simple, legible, and objective — I fell in love with the idea in design school and it’s something I tend to gravitate toward in all my work. This conceptual framework fits well within type design because you are creating a system of shapes that can be formed and reformed in different orders. But taken too far, it can also suppress all the features that makes the shapes unique. Finding a balance between cleaning it up and keeping it characterful was one of the toughest parts of making Tofino.

I probably restarted the drawings a dozen times as I tried to find this balance. I also hit a point where I wasn’t quite sure if it was a display typeface, or a text typeface. It could probably be either, but I needed to choose a direction. Because I wanted it to be useful in a digital space I decided that display was probably a better place to start. Website designs had been increasingly containing less information in larger type sizes as designers catered to our ever-shrinking attention spans.

The majority of the typeface was completed when my son was born in August 2015. Having a new baby around leaves you with a surprising amount of time that was previously filled by work — newborns spend an awful lot of time sleeping and eating. I often ended up lying on the couch with a tiny sleeping human lying on my chest. When I wasn’t also sleeping, there were two choices to amuse myself, binge-watch Netflix, or key bind the shift and command button to my mouse and work on my typeface with one hand.

I actually felt like designing type quite often (although much binge-watching happened as well 😝), I think it made me feel more like myself after going through the big personal changes that motherhood brings. I also made time for weekly meetings with other type designers in Vancouver, and Tofino really started to take shape.

Tofino was first released in May of 2016 and it contained eight weights of the display style. But a type designer’s job is never done and ideas of expansion began to percolate, I couldn’t stop working on it! Tofino 2.0 with italics was released almost a year later in March 2017.

Designers can get a lot done with the main eight weights of Tofino but I felt like I needed to explore different widths as well. I loved the wide version and saw so much usefulness in the condensed version that I completely reworked the family to include four widths as well. Congruently to that exploration I wanted to see if I could also make a text version by making some slight adjustments to a few of the middle weights. In November 2017 I released the Tofino Pro package including four widths, nine weights, and eight text styles for a total of 74 styles.

I learned so much working through Tofino as my first serious type design project and so much after I completed it. In October 2020, I launched my own website and foundry, Alanna Munro Type Foundry and am working on Tofino quality improvements and a variable font file to be released sometime in 2021. Stay tuned!

♡ Alanna