Phase-change materials are some of the most promising materials for data-storage applications. They are already used in rewriteable optical data storage and offer great potential as an emerging non-volatile electronic memory. This review looks at the unique property combination that characterizes phase-change materials. The crystalline state often shows an octahedral-like atomic arrangement, frequently accompanied by pronounced lattice distortions and huge vacancy concentrations. This can be attributed to the chemical bonding in phase-change alloys, which is promoted by p-orbitals. From this insight, phase-change alloys with desired properties can be designed. This is demonstrated for the optical properties of phase-change alloys, in particular the contrast between the amorphous and crystalline states. The origin of the fast crystallization kinetics is also discussed.