The ability of cells to adhere to each other and to their surrounding extracellular matrices is essential for a multicellular existence. Adhesion provides physical support for cells, regulates cell positioning and enables microenvironmental sensing. The integrins and the syndecans are two adhesion receptor families that mediate adhesion, but their relative and functional contributions to cell-extracellular matrix interactions remain obscure. Recent advances have highlighted connections between the signalling networks that are controlled by these families of receptors. Here we survey the evidence that synergistic signalling is involved in controlling adhesive function and the regulation of cell behaviour in response to the external environment.