Graphic designer, photographer and co-owner of We Have Doughnuts, Graham Yelton has creativity running through her veins. She is building up Birmingham businesses by telling their stories with thoughtful graphics and beautiful photography that capture the life behind the brand. We are delighted to welcome today’s FACE of Birmingham, Graham Yelton.
You are a Nashville native. What brought you to Birmingham?
I was looking for a college that would offer me a soccer scholarship and also had a reputable graphic design program. I enrolled at Samford University in 1999, and I’ve been here ever since!
What came first — graphic design or photography?
I’ve always thought of graphic design as my main squeeze and photography as my muse.
When did you realize that this would be your career path? Was there an “aha” moment or a certain project that clarified this as a life passion for you?
I was always a really creative kid. I puff-painted everything I owned. It was actually my mom that suggested graphic design as a career path. Mothers are so wise! Also, there’s a strong photography gene on both sides of my family. After my grandfather graduated high school, he worked for Fox Photography and traveled from city to city taking portraits. So I think photography was inevitable for me.
Tell us a little bit about your professional journey in design and photography.
For some reason, a career path in photography seemed totally impractical, but I think deep down that’s what I always wanted to do. So I landed on a graphic design path and absolutely loved it. At the same time, I took every photography class, job and internship that Samford offered. After graduating, I got a job at a local branding agency, and eventually I started shooting for our clients. That was the first time I admitted to myself that I really wanted to be a photographer. I knew it was time for me to step out on my own, but I was very hesitant. I was not naive about the challenges of running a freelance business. That was seven years ago. Since then, I’ve been very particular about the kind of work I take. I’ve turned down some lucrative jobs simply because they weren’t inspiring. I’ve said yes to some great jobs that terrified me. It’s easy to go to work every day when I’m passionate about my clients and what they do.
What made you decide to start your own business?
I’m a big believer in listening to your gut. And mine was telling me to quit my job for a long time. I finally just had to leap. I knew that I wanted to combine my two loves and see if I could create the kind of work that I always admired.
Was that scary?
Yes, but it felt really good. That was the first real risk I ever took.
What is most challenging about running your own one-woman show?
I miss the daily collaboration that happens naturally in a workplace. I really love being part of a team, and that has been my biggest struggle. I have to be intentional about collaborating with other creatives and getting quality feedback on my work.
What is most rewarding?
Oh, man! This is the most rewarding job. I work with a lot of entrepreneurs and local businesses that need help telling their stories. I love providing them with branding that matches the quality of their goods or services. And, in turn, I love watching Birmingham mature and grow because of the success of these businesses.
How did We Have Doughnuts come about?
Several years ago, we hired Phil Amthor as an architect to help us on our home renovation. We bonded over our passion for local food, bourbon and doughnuts. We also talked a lot about how we could invest in Birmingham and help make it a better place to live. Phil, who is also a talented city planner, decided to start working on a doughnut recipe. Honestly, I think he was just hungry for a delicious doughnut. They turned out so well that he wanted to share them. We both saw it as a way to contribute to the growing momentum in this city. It’s been the funnest and most rewarding project that I’ve ever worked on!
Tell us about your role in the company.
It’s a small company, so we wear many hats. I do all the visual branding, photography, social media and communications. As a partner, I help with the business strategy and even the seasonal menu. One of my favorite parts of this job is collaborating with the team on new flavors and recipe testing. One thing I do not do is actually make the doughnuts. I was not gifted with the ability to bake — too precise for me!
If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?
Take more risks. Be confident in your vision. Do not cut your own bangs.
What inspires you artistically?
Fashion. The colors and design style of the ’50s. Solutions that are smart and simple. Getting off the grid.
Do you have personal projects in art or photography? If so, are you working on any now?
One of my favorite ongoing personal projects is simply photographing our life through the vintage Polaroid camera. I love the bizarre pastel colors in each little square. I had a six-foot-tall custom frame made for them and it’s in our living room. I have some upcoming fashion-inspired stories that are really tickling the right side of my brain, too.
What is your favorite thing about graphic design?
The psychology of it
What is your favorite thing about photography?
The romance of it
How do you like to spend your free time?
It’s been a while since I had any of that, but my husband and I just purchased a 1968 Airstream. That’s what I need to be working on in my free time! We also have a pretty substantial garden, and we grow a lot of produce in the spring and summer months.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
There are a lot of artists that I admire, but the closest thing I’ve ever had to a mentor was my college professor, Richard Dendy.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
Overcoming my own insecurities and creating an occupation that I never thought possible. I don’t make a lot of money, but I love what I do.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I played Division I college soccer, and I’m very competitive.
What is your best piece of advice?
Listen to your gut. Create the kind of work you want. Do what you love, even if no one is paying you to do it.
With the exception of faith, family and friends, what are three things that you cannot live without?
Farm fresh eggs — I tried living without eggs. It’s just too damn hard. Smith Lake, or really any body of water — I’m an Aquarius, and I think I need it to feel sane. Cocktails — I think my real calling in life is to be a mixologist.
And thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for the gorgeous photos of Graham in her home studio.