Embryonic morphogenesis requires the execution of complex mechanisms that regulate the local behaviour of groups of cells. The orchestration of such mechanisms has been mainly deciphered through the identification of conserved families of signalling pathways that spatially and temporally control cell behaviour. However, how this information is processed to control cell shape and cell dynamics is an open area of investigation. The framework that emerges from diverse disciplines such as cell biology, physics and developmental biology points to adhesion and cortical actin networks as regulators of cell surface mechanics. In this context, a range of developmental phenomena can be explained by the regulation of cell surface tension.