Structural hierarchy and heterogeneity are inherent features in biological materials, but their significance in affecting the system behaviors is yet to be fully understood. In Sec. I, this article first identifies the major characteristics that manifest, or are resulted from, such hierarchy and heterogeneity in materials. Then in Sec. II, it presents several typical natural material systems including wood, bone, and others from animals to illustrate the proposed views. The paper also discusses a man-made smart material, textiles, to demonstrate that textiles are hierarchal, multifunctional, highly complex, and arguably the engineered material closest on a par with biological materials in complexity, and, more importantly, we can still learn quite a few new things from them in development of novel materials. In Sec. III, the paper summarizes several general approaches in developing a hierarchal material system at various scales, including structure thinning and splitting, laminating and layering, spatial and angular orientation, heterogenization and hybridization, and analyzes the advantages associated with them. It also stresses the adverse consequences once the existing structural hierarchy breaks down due to various mutations in biological systems. It discusses, in particular, the influences of moisture and air on material properties, given the near ubiquitousness of both air and water in materials. It next deals with in Sec. IV, some theoretical issues in material research including packing and ordering, the bi-modular mechanics, the behavior non-affinities due to disparity in hierarchal levels, the importance of system dimensionality in a hierarchal material system, and more philosophically, the issues of Nature's wisdom versus Intelligent Design. Section V then offers some concluding remarks, including a recap of the major issues covered in this article, and some general conclusions derived from the analyses and discussions. The main purpose of this paper is to make an effort to explore, identify, derive, or theorize some generic principles based on the existing results, not to offer another comprehensive review of current research activities in the fields for that there already exist some excellent ones. This paper examines the related topics with several approaches to not only reveal the underlying geometrical and physical mechanisms but also to emphasize the ways in which such mechanisms may be applied to developing engineered material systems with novel properties. © 2014 AIP Publishing LLC.