Cerebral small vessel disease (SVD) is commonly observed on neuroimaging among elderly individuals and is recognized as a major vascular contributor to dementia, cognitive decline, gait impairment, mood disturbance and stroke. However, clinical symptoms are often highly inconsistent in nature and severity among patients with similar degrees of SVD on brain imaging. Here, we provide a new framework based on new advances in structural and functional neuroimaging that aims to explain the remarkable clinical variation in SVD. First, we discuss the heterogeneous pathology present in SVD lesions despite an identical appearance on imaging and the perilesional and remote effects of these lesions. We review effects of SVD on structural and functional connectivity in the brain, and we discuss how network disruption by SVD can lead to clinical deficits. We address reserve and compensatory mechanisms in SVD and discuss the part played by other age-related pathologies. Finally, we conclude that SVD should be considered a global rather than a focal disease, as the classically recognized focal lesions affect remote brain structures and structural and functional network connections. The large variability in clinical symptoms among patients with SVD can probably be understood by taking into account the heterogeneity of SVD lesions, the effects of SVD beyond the focal lesions, the contribution of neurodegenerative pathologies other than SVD, and the interaction with reserve mechanisms and compensatory mechanisms.