The interaction of transcription factors with specific DNA sites is key for the regulation of gene expression. Despite the availability of a large body of structural data on protein–DNA complexes, we are still far from fully understanding the molecular and biophysical bases underlying such interactions. Therefore, the development of non-natural agents that can reproduce the DNA-recognition properties of natural transcription factors remains a major and challenging goal in chemical biology. In this review we summarize the basics of double-stranded DNA recognition by transcription factors, and describe recent developments in the design and preparation of synthetic DNA binders. We mainly focus on synthetic peptides that have been designed by following the DNA interaction of natural proteins, and we discuss how the tools of organic synthesis can be used to make artificial constructs equipped with functionalities that introduce additional properties to the recognition process, such as sensing and controllability.