Developing organisms may contain billions of cells destined to differentiate in numerous different ways. One strategy organisms use to simplify the orchestration of development is the separation of cell populations into distinct functional units. Our expanding knowledge of boundary formation and function in different systems is beginning to reveal general principles of this process. Fields of cells are subdivided by the interpretation of morphogen gradients, and these subdivisions are then maintained and refined by local cell-cell interactions. Sharp and stable separation between cell populations requires special mechanisms to keep cells segregated, which in many cases appear to involve the regulation of cell affinity. Once cell populations become distinct, specialized cells are often induced along the borders between them. These boundary cells can then influence the patterning of surrounding cells, which can result in progressively finer subdivisions of a tissue. Much has been learned about the signaling pathways that establish boundaries, but a key challenge for the future remains to elucidate the cellular and molecular mechanisms that actually keep cell populations separated.