Solar fuel production often starts with the energy from light being absorbed by an assembly of molecules; this electronic excitation is subsequently transferred to a suitable acceptor. For example, in photosynthesis, antenna complexes capture sunlight and direct the energy to reaction centres that then carry out the associated chemistry. In this Review, we describe the principles learned from studies of various natural antenna complexes and suggest how to elucidate strategies for designing light-harvesting systems. We envisage that such systems will be used for solar fuel production, to direct and regulate excitation energy flow using molecular organizations that facilitate feedback and control, or to transfer excitons over long distances. Also described are the notable properties of light-harvesting chromophores, spatial-energetic landscapes, the roles of excitonic states and quantum coherence, as well as how antennas are regulated and photoprotected. © 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd.