Motif is a French word meaning an object or a group of objects that form a distinct design element. It is a recurring theme, subject, or idea that appears in a work of art, a piece of music, or even a novel. The Oxford English Dictionary also cites the word as an obsolete form of motive. When it comes to choosing or designing a motif for your wedding invitations, this antiquated usage is very appropriate: There should always be a motive behind your motif. And that motive is obvious.
Invitations, mailed six to eight weeks before your wedding, are often the first notification that guests receive of the event to come. With your motif, you can introduce the spirit, style, formality, and even the theme of your nuptials. Motifs work best when they recur, used on all printed material that guests will see -- from invitations to reply cards, menu cards, and even place cards. They offer a visual unity that mirrors the unity of the newly married couple. Finding your motif can be one of the most creative and enjoyable tasks of your wedding planning.
You might choose a simple monogram or a regal family crest. You may take inspiration from the place you got engaged or the location where you will be married. It can be chosen from a clip-art book (or computer-graphics program) or from a reproduction of Renaissance calligraphic text. The motif might be laden with meaning, for instance, a pictorial depiction of an interest the two of you share, such as gardening or sailing, or it might turn out to be just a pleasing embellishment on the paper, such as a leaf or a snowflake. Whatever source you take your icon from, a reputable printer should be able to help you duplicate it in a manner that makes it print-worthy. If leafing through old books and architectural drawings seems too time consuming, you could hire a professional illustrator or calligrapher to create a design for you. This is not the least expensive option, of course, but it would lead to a design that is truly your own.
There are very few rules to choosing a motif, but they bear mentioning. The first concerns monograms. If you are using a monogram on any of your wedding cards for the bride, be sure to use the bridge's maiden initials for all cards that go out before the actual ceremony, such as save-the-dates and invitations. Cards that appear afterward, such as place cards and menu cards, can then display the couple's new monogram (if, in fact, the bride is changing her name). If you prefer not to have two different sets of initials, you could always take a more modern approach and use only the bride's and groom's first initials.
The other rules to be aware of are the legalities imposed by copyright laws. Icons or letters taken from extremely old books are usually free from copyright restrictions. However, there are laws that govern most modern illustrations and books. Even clip art can have restrictions. Ask your stationer or printer to advise as to whether you are on dangerous ground with your chosen image; they may even be able to help you alter the design so that you don't run afoul of the law.
In the end, though, even while working within the rules of etiquette and the laws, you don't need to put a damper on your creativity. When chosen thoughtfully and executed stylishly, your motif will enhance the feel of your wedding day -- and may be your personal symbol for years to come, decorating your stationery, linens, and other objects in your home. Just remember, there are as many motifs as there are couples getting married -- and there are also as many ways to select them.