Microorganisms are ubiquitous and adapt to various dynamic environments to sustain growth. These adaptations accumulate, generating new traits forming the basis of evolution. Organisms adapt at various levels, such as gene regulation, signalling, protein-protein interactions and metabolism. Of these, metabolism forms the integral core of an organism for maintaining the growth and function of a cell. Therefore, studying adaptations in metabolic networks is crucial to understand the emergence of novel metabolic capabilities. Metabolic networks, composed of enzyme-catalysed reactions, exhibit certain repeating paradigms or design principles that arise out of different selection pressures. In this review, we discuss the design principles that are known to exist in metabolic networks, such as functional redundancy, modularity, flux coupling and exaptations. We elaborate on the studies that have helped gain insights highlighting the interplay of these design principles and adaptation. Further, we discuss how evolution plays a role in exploiting such paradigms to enhance the robustness of organisms. Looking forward, we predict that with the availability of ever-increasing numbers of bacterial, archaeal and eukaryotic genomic sequences, novel design principles will be identified, expanding our understanding of these paradigms shaped by varied evolutionary processes. © 2019 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society.