Transcription factors (TFs) recognize specific DNA sequences to control chromatin and transcription, forming a complex system that guides expression of the genome. Despite keen interest in understanding how TFs control gene expression, it remains challenging to determine how the precise genomic binding sites of TFs are specified and how TF binding ultimately relates to regulation of transcription. This review considers how TFs are identified and functionally characterized, principally through the lens of a catalog of over 1,600 likely human TFs and binding motifs for two-thirds of them. Major classes of human TFs differ markedly in their evolutionary trajectories and expression patterns, underscoring distinct functions. TFs likewise underlie many different aspects of human physiology, disease, and variation, highlighting the importance of continued effort to understand TF-mediated gene regulation.