The chemical composition of the surface layers of synthetic biomaterials used for human medical devices and in biotechnology plays a key role in determining interfacial interactions between biological media (such as protein solutions, cells, tissue) and the synthetic material. Accordingly, considerable research efforts focus on improving the 'biocompatibility' of biomaterials by applying various surface modification and thin film coating approaches. Here we focus on the patterning of surface chemistries, often designed to exercise spatial control over events such as cell attachment and spreading. Secondly, we review recent developments in chemical characterisation of biomaterials surfaces, which is essential both for verifying the success of intended surface modification strategies and for reliable interpretation of observed biological responses. Biomaterials surface analysis by imaging ToF-SIMS and XPS and compositional depth profiling are discussed, as is the emerging complementary technique of Metastable Induced Electron Spectroscopy.