We have developed a mathematical theory that describes the regulation of signaling pathways as a function of a limited number of key parameters. Our analysis includes linear kinase-phosphatase cascades, as well as systems containing feedback interactions, crosstalk with other signaling pathways, and/or scaffolding and G proteins. We find that phosphatases have a more pronounced effect than kinases on the rate and duration of signaling, whereas signal amplitude is controlled primarily by kinases. The simplest model pathways allow amplified signaling only at the expense of slow signal propagation. More complex and realistic pathways can combine high amplification and signaling rates with maintenance of a stable off-state. Our models also explain how different agonists can evoke transient or sustained signaling of the same pathway and provide a rationale for signaling pathway design.