The central role of protein kinase C (PK-C) in cellular signal transduction has established it as an important therapeutic target for cancer and other diseases. We have developed a series of 4,4-disubstituted-gamma-butyrolactones, which contain a constrained glycerol backbone (DAG-lactones) and behave as potent and selective activating ligands of PK-C with affinities that approach those of the structurally complex natural product agonists, such as the phorbol esters. This Account traces the design and construction of these molecules. Initially, we examined the consequences of reducing the entropic penalty associated with the transformation of a DAG into a DAG-lactone. Then, using molecular modeling to extend insights arising from the newly solved crystal structure of a C1 domain complexed with phorbol ester, we incorporated amino acid-specific branched hydrophobic chains to provide a new generation of DAG-lactones that have the capacity to bind to PK-C with low nanomolar affinity. Depending on the specific pattern of hydrophobic substitution, some DAG-lactones are able to induce selective translocation of individual PK-C isozymes to different cellular compartments, and since the specific nature of these hydrophobic interactions influences biological outcome, some of these compounds exhibit cell-specific antitumor activity. The ability to direct specific PK-C isozyme translocation with sets of structurally simple, yet highly potent molecules provides a powerful tool for engineering a plethora of molecules with novel biological functions.