This Review summarizes recent developments in the field of responsive photonic crystal structures, including principles for design and fabrication and many strategies for applications, for example as optical switches or chemical and biological sensors. A number of fabrication methods are now available to realize responsive photonic structures, the majority of which rely on self-assembly processes to achieve ordering. Compared with microfabrication techniques, self-assembly approaches have lower processing costs and higher production efficiency, however, major efforts are still needed to further develop such approaches. In fact, some emerging techniques such as spin coating, magnetic assembly, and flow-induced self-assembly have already shown great promise in overcoming current challenges. When designing new systems with improved performance, it is always helpful to bear in mind the lessons learnt from natural photonic structures.