In 1875 insistent demands were made for the founding of a commercial museum in Zurich. Reform was the order of the day: designs and objects shown as examples were intended to train the stylistic confidence and taste of designers, thereby keeping threatened native Swiss products competitive on the European market. The museum provided the means to this end, and the Kunstgewerbeschule was founded in 1878. The partnership of these two institutions – known since 2007 as the "Zurich University of the Arts, Museum of Design Zurich" – has lasted to this day. The entire institution is supported by the canton of Zurich. The museum disposes of two exhibition spaces: the main building at the Ausstellungsstrasse 60, 8005 Zurich, currently closed for renovation until the reopening in March 2018, and the site in the Toni-Areal in Zurich West opened in 2014. To secure permanent disposition of the location in the Toni-Areal, the Museum Bellerive on Lake Zurich – a part of the Museum für Gestaltung until February 2017– was given back to the City of Zurich.
Since the beginning of the 20th century both the aesthetic inheritance of the previous century and contemporary issues of design have been studied in a lively series of exhibitions. The very first director decreed that applied art should be another field for collection.

The Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) gave shape to both this programme and the ideals of the modern movement for good design. However, excessive attention to "good formal structure" has become suspect, at least since the post-modernist thinking of the 1980s. It is all the more important for the museum to bear in mind both changing evaluations and the requirements of its own activities.

Exhibitions often develop only subsequently into the kind of events that crystallise a particular Zeitgeist. Classic design issues as in Forme nuove in Italia (1954), or gute möbel (1961) represent the exhibition business of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s the sociologically focussed gaze falls on the exciting relationship between the individual and society as shown in Lernen vom Industriequartier (1976) or in Grafiker gestalten für die Öffentlichkeit (1977). From the 1980s onwards the programme demonstrates a broader understanding of the term design (Imitationen: Von der Lust am Falschen, 1989; Sportdesign, 2004). It is also noticeable that certain themes seem to reoccur: since the travelling exhibition "Film und Foto" from the Deutscher Werkbund was shown in 1929 film has repeatedly figured as an exhibition theme in 1945, 1960, 1972 and 1977 – up to 100 Jahre Schweizer Werbefilm! (1998) and Trickraum (2005). But more particularly it is a curiosity about design phenomena and a fascination with the exhibition as a medium that in fact defines the programme's continuity.