Graham Yelton is a Birmingham, Alabama-based graphic designer and photographer who has shot everything from weddings to law firm head shots. But lately, she’s embraced design projects that align with her own passions, including home interiors, fashion and food. Her most recent project focuses on doughnuts, “a funny little side project,” called, simply, We Have Doughnuts. And the story starts with her house.
“Our home has been a launching pad for a lot of bizarre job opportunities and friendships,” Graham shares. She and her husband, Jay, bought an old house in an up-and-coming neighborhood, tore the old structure down, and rebuilt it from the ground up. They started looking for an architect and really hit it off with a friend of a friend.
“Phil [Amthor] said he’d do the [architectural] drawings for free and we’d owe him one down the road. We became really good friends with him and bonded over the house and Birmingham and what it could be. Phil talked about doughnuts all the time. There was a place in town where he used to get doughnuts growing up and it wasn’t there anymore and he really wanted to eat this double chocolate doughnut. He ended up talking to the son of the business owner to try and get the recipe. It looked like he might start making them on the side and I said if he needed a designer, I’d be happy to do that. I love doughnuts and always thought it would be neat to have a doughnut and coffee shop.”
“It’s been fun to work in-house,” she continues. “It’s a cool little business with a great product, and it’s exciting to start something from the ground up and have total control over it. It’s really rewarding.”
Two years ago, local economic development organization REV Birmingham selected We Have Doughnuts for a featured pop-up space in town. “It took us a long time to figure out the kitchen, financial stuff, etc., so it was a long time coming. But we’re now a doughnut stand,” says Graham. While she’s focused mainly on branding and design work, Graham mentions she also really finds joy in helping with the flavor. “We have a vision for what we want the doughnut shop to be, the personality. We don’t believe in sprinkles. One of the other partners calls them unicorn farts. This is an adult, sophisticated doughnut.” She pushes for complexity and creativity when possible. “Let’s throw out a new creative flavor for a couple days and get people out there and excited. I made a lemon curd for a Pavlova dessert last night and thought, gosh, this would be so good in a doughnut. I love food, I cook all the time, I have a huge garden. It’s not that farfetched for me to be involved in the recipe creation.”
Speaking of Graham’s garden, it’s “a monster. We have a thing for heirloom tomatoes. They’re pretty large – the plants get to be 6 feet tall! It’s like a tomato jungle right now. I wanted to take a photo but it’s not even attractive.” An acquaintance who works at Cooking Light emailed Graham a few months ago and said the magazine needed someone to take over their garden feature. “She asked if I wanted to style it, grow it, pretty much produce the whole thing. I said yes. We’re now growing tomato plants specifically for the magazine. We shot pepper plants a couple weeks ago. Berries a month or so ago. We’ll shoot some fall lettuce stuff in a month or two. It’s stressful, but fun. We’re up to our eyeballs in peppers right now, if you need any habaneros.” Her house is on an acre and takes up most of the plot, and the garden takes up a “narrow little side lot. It’s amazing how much you can grow in a small little space.”
Originally from Nashville, Graham says she’s always had creative energy. “My parents pretty much labeled me ADD before that was a label. I was always puff painting things and selling them to friends in fourth grade, crafting my own earrings. It was a little out of control. I was into photography in high school, into art classes and art history. When it came time to pick a college major, I was really interested in psychology. My mom gently suggested studying graphic design. She’s so intuitive. I think she knew me better than I knew myself at the time. I didn’t even know that was an occupation.” Graham attended Samford University, where she played soccer and studied graphic design, and got a design job upon graduation. She noticed photographers were being hired to take photos as a stand-alone job and thought, “this is crazy, I can do both. I had been hiring photographers for projects and was often unhappy with the results. I was playing it safe for about five years in the graphic design arena and was unhappy with the work I was doing. I quit my job and decided to do freelance graphic design and photography together. I really liked the merging of the two.”
She started with weddings (full disclosure: Graham shot my own wedding and did an incredible job), which she notes is a rite of passage for a lot of photographers. But she realized “they are the most stressful of all jobs,” as so many things can and do go wrong. She doesn’t shoot many weddings these days, but remember Phil? “He got married recently and I shot his wedding. That was our trade for him being our architect!” Graham says over time, she learned her strength was photography with a target audience and a message. She knew this would lead her to advertising, commercial and branding work.
Let’s return to her house. Interior design photography is another passion project that stemmed from Graham’s beautiful custom home. A local blog picked up Graham and her husband’s home design project, and then a local magazine picked up the story. A year later, another local magazine called and asked if Graham would take over the magazine’s home section. “I’ve had a lot of people hire me for stuff that I have no idea how they think I’m qualified because I’ve never done it. But I said yes and every month I’d meet architects, interior designers, and that was so fun. Then I’d get new projects through the interior designers,” like shooting photos for other local design companies. “I’ve been rewarded over and over again for following my gut and shooting what I love and not necessarily knowing if it would produce anything.” She said the home photography opened up interiors, lifestyle and fashion work. That led to photographing local musicians; she recently worked with “The Voice” contestant and Birmingham native Jessie Pitts, who just released a single.
“I’ve been rewarded over and over again for following my gut and shooting what I love and not necessarily knowing if it would produce anything.”
She also shoots local food, cocktails and restaurants. “I should probably focus on one thing but I love all of these things so much, I can’t choose. I like free cocktails, I like free doughnuts. I trade for a lot of this stuff. Half my home is trades from my clients – my rug, my sofa, my wallpaper. It’s a good setup. I bartered doughnuts this morning to use my neighbor’s KitchenAid mixer for a while. But I felt bad taking the doughnuts for free, so I made a frittata for the girls working in the kitchen [so I could] give doughnuts to the neighbor. But they are pretty good so I find it’s easy to get things if I bring someone a doughnut.”
Graham credits her success and happiness to quitting her unfulfilling job, building a home she loves and “putting out into the universe the type of stuff I want to work on.” She notes that for a time, she was getting some uncreative work because that’s what people were seeing. “That was a key piece of advice I received. Stepping out on my own, I had one good piece of freelance work. And once you tell people you’re available, everybody needs a logo, everybody needs a head shot. I was very intentional about the work I did. I think that’s essential.”
“I say no to a lot of stuff that just doesn’t feel right, that isn’t going to give me a good return on investment. I want to have work that’s satisfying.”