Every cartilage and bone in the vertebrate skeleton has a precise shape and position. The head skeleton develops in the embryo from the neural crest, which emigrates from the neural ectoderm and forms the skull and pharyngeal arches. Recent genetic data from mice and zebrafish suggest that cells in the pharyngeal segments are specified by positional information in at least two dimensions, Hox genes along the anterior-posterior axis and other homeobox genes along the dorsal-ventral axis within a segment. Many zebrafish and human mutant phenotypes indicate that additional genes are required for the development of groups of adjacent pharyngeal arches and for patterning along the mediolateral axis of the skull. The complementary genetic approaches in humans, mice and fish reveal networks of genes that specify the complex morphology of the head skeleton along a relatively simple set of coordinates.