The molecular and physical information coded within the extracellular milieu is informing the development of a new generation of biomaterials for tissue engineering. Several powerful extracellular influences have already found their way into cell-instructive scaffolds, while others remain largely unexplored. Yet for commercial success tissue engineering products must be not only efficacious but also cost-effective, introducing a potential dichotomy between the need for sophistication and ease of production. This is spurring interest in recreating extracellular influences in simplified forms, from the reduction of biopolymers into short functional domains, to the use of basic chemistries to manipulate cell fate. In the future these exciting developments are likely to help reconcile the clinical and commercial pressures on tissue engineering.