Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), also known as coordination polymers, are formed by the self-assembly of metallic centres and bridging organic linkers. In this critical review, we review the key advances in the field and discuss the relationship between the nature and structure of specifically designed organic linkers and the properties of the products. Practical examples demonstrate that the physical and chemical properties of the linkers play a decisive role in the properties of novel functional MOFs. We focus on target materials suitable for the storage of hydrogen and methane, sequestration of carbon dioxide, gas separation, heterogeneous catalysis and as magnetic and photoluminescent materials capable of both metal- and ligand-centred emission, ion exchangers and molecular sieves. The advantages of highly active discrete complexes as metal-bearing ligands in the construction of MOFs are also briefly reviewed (128 references).