The modification of surfaces with self-assembled monolayers (SAMs) containing multiple different molecules, or containing molecules with multiple different functional components, or both, has become increasingly popular over the last two decades. This explosion of interest is primarily related to the ability to control the modification of interfaces with something approaching molecular level control and to the ability to characterise the molecular constructs by which the surface is modified. Over this time the level of sophistication of molecular constructs, and the level of knowledge related to how to fabricate molecular constructs on surfaces have advanced enormously. This critical review aims to guide researchers interested in modifying surfaces with a high degree of control to the use of organic layers. Highlighted are some of the issues to consider when working with SAMs, as well as some of the lessons learnt (169 references). 2011 The Royal Society of Chemistry.