Abstract Protective and functional coatings for tools and components are nowadays required in an increasingly demanding and sophisticated profile with respect to the desired mechanical, tribological, physical or chemical properties. Frequently, the necessary requirements can only be realized by multi-functional coatings through a nano-scale thin-film design. CVD- and PVD-coatings in the material system B–C–N–H are known for their outstanding properties. Depending on the materials selection within this system and detailed coating design, extremely high hardness, low friction and excellent chemical stability can be obtained. Here it is shown that coatings with well tailored properties can be achieved according to special coating concepts, in particular through multilayers and nanocomposites, in conjunction with the control of surface processes. Several designs and optimization examples for anticipated nano-scale multi-functional coatings will be presented, showing the fundamental significance of the underlying knowledge, i.e. the interdependent relationships between the constitution and microstructure of the coating systems, the energy and momentum input of the processing particles during nucleation and growth of the coatings, the mechanical properties, and the operation performance.