The Rho family GTPase effector IRSp53 has essential roles in filopodia formation and neuronal development, but its regulatory mechanism is poorly understood. IRSp53 contains a membrane-binding BAR domain followed by an unconventional CRIB motif that overlaps with a proline-rich region (CRIB-PR) and an SH3 domain that recruits actin cytoskeleton effectors. Using a fluorescence reporter assay, we show that human IRSp53 adopts a closed inactive conformation that opens synergistically with the binding of human Cdc42 to the CRIB-PR and effector proteins, such as the tumor-promoting factor Eps8, to the SH3 domain. The crystal structure of Cdc42 bound to the CRIB-PR reveals a new mode of effector binding to Rho family GTPases. Structure-inspired mutations disrupt autoinhibition and Cdc42 binding in vitro and decouple Cdc42- and IRSp53-dependent filopodia formation in cells. The data support a combinatorial mechanism of IRSp53 activation.