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Understanding LEGO part numbers

If you've ever looked at the bottom of a LEGO piece closely you will have noticed that there's a 4- or 5-digit number visible, which is its design number.

However, when you look at the parts listing at the back of instruction manuals, this number isn't shown. The 6- or 7-digit numbers listed there are element numbers.

So, what's the difference, how are the two related, and how are they allocated?

I can't claim to be an expert, but I thought it would be useful to others to write down what I've learned about them over the years. The article is not intended to be exhaustive or definitive but it will hopefully be of interest to those new to the hobby.

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