Cell migration in wound healing and disease is critically dependent on integration with the extracellular matrix, but the receptors that couple matrix topography to migratory behavior remain obscure. Using nano-engineered fibronectin surfaces and cell-derived matrices, we identify syndecan-4 as a key signaling receptor determining directional migration. In wild-type fibroblasts, syndecan-4 mediates the matrix-induced protein kinase Cα (PKCα)-dependent activation of Rac1 and localizes Rac1 activity and membrane protrusion to the leading edge of the cell, resulting in persistent migration. In contrast, syndecan-4-null fibroblasts migrate randomly as a result of high delocalized Rac1 activity, whereas cells expressing a syndecan-4 cytodomain mutant deficient in PKCα regulation fail to localize active Rac1 to points of matrix engagement and consequently fail to recognize and respond to topographical changes in the matrix. © The Rockefeller University Press.