Abstract Single-cell patterning begins with an asymmetric cue that orients the axis of polarity. Despite great diversity in the types of cues, common mechanisms appear to mediate the polarizing response. Rho-family GTPases initially process and reinforce polarity cues by remodelling cortical actin, and these local asymmetries are subsequently propagated to the microtubules, membrane and secretory pathway to generate the final pattern. Homologues of the yeast polarity genes fulfil similar functions in higher eukaryotes, revealing a fundamental conservation in how polarity arises. Unlike yeast, however, more complex eukaryotic cells can manifest multiple axes of polarity, suggesting that additional mechanisms have evolved to generate more elaborate patterns.