The multiprotein complexes that comprise cell-matrix contacts play critical roles in cell adhesion and motility, matrix assembly, and localization and activation of signalling molecules that regulate cell proliferation and survival. Several forms of matrix contact have been described, and it is important to establish how these are defined, assembled and regulated. Josephine Adams surveys the different types of cell-matrix contact, defining three classes: protrusive contacts that dynamically associate with the matrix; contractile contacts responsible for more stable adhesion; and mechanically supportive contacts that stabilize the membrane against mechanical load. Adams goes on to discuss studies that have provided insight into how these contact sites are coordinated and regulated. Studies of fibroblasts attaching to surfaces coated with matrix molecules, for example, have revealed a sequential conversion of protrusive contacts to contractile adhesions, which probably reflects the ability of cells to coordinate reorganization of matrix contacts during locomotion. Moreover, recent work has shed light on the roles of molecular components of cell-matrix contacts (especially integrins, proteoglycans and paxillin) in the control of their dynamics