The fundamentals of coating tribology are presented in a generalised holistic approach to friction and wear mechanisms of coated surfaces in dry sliding contacts. This is based on a classification of the tribological contact process into macromechanical, micromechanical, tribochemical contact mechanisms and material transfer. The tribological contact process is dominated by the macromechanical mechanisms, which have been systematically analysed by using four main parameters: the coating-to-substrate hardness relationship, the film thickness, the surface roughnesses and the debris in the contact. The description covers both soft and hard coatings with thicknesses typically in the range 0.1–50 μm, where the interaction between the coating and the substrate is essential to the tribological behaviour. The concept is supported by experimental observations. The important influence of thin tribo- and transfer layers formed during the sliding action is shown. Optimal surface design both regarding friction and wear can be achieved by new multilayer techniques giving reduced stresses, improved adhesion to substrate, more flexible coatings and harder and smoother surfaces. The differences in contact mechanisms in dry, water- and oil lubricated contacts with coated surfaces is illustrated by experimental results from diamond-like coatings sliding against a steel ball. The mechanisms of the formation of dry transfer- and tribolayers and lubricated boundary and reaction films are discussed.