The ever-increasing human demand for safe and clean water is gradually pushing conventional water treatment technologies to their limits and it is now a popular perception that the solutions to the existing and future water challenges will highly hinge upon the further development of nanomaterial sciences. The concept of rational design emphasizes ‘design-for-purpose’ and it necessitates a scientifically clear problem definition to initiate the nanomaterial design. The field of rational design of nanomaterials for water treatment has experienced a significant growth in the past decade and is poised to make its contribution in creating advanced next-generation water treatment technologies in the years to come. Within the water treatment context, this review offers a comprehensive and in-depth overview of the latest progress of the rational design, synthesis and applications of nanomaterials in adsorption, chemical oxidation and reduction reactions, membrane-based separation, oil/water separation, and synergistic multifunctional all-in-one nanomaterials/nanodevices. Special attention is paid on chemical concepts of the nanomaterial designs throughout the review.