Bill was born in Winterthur. After an apprenticeship as a silversmith during 1924-1927, Bill took up studies at the Bauhaus in Dessau under many teachers including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer from 1927 to 1929, after which he moved to Zurich.
After working on graphic designs for the few modern buildings being constructed, he built his first work, his own house and studio (1932–3) in Zurich-Höngg. From 1937 onwards he was a prime mover behind the Allianz group of Swiss artists.
Bill is widely considered the single most decisive influence on Swiss graphic design beginning in the 1950s with his theoretical writing and progressive work. His connection to the days of the Modern Movement gave him special authority. As an industrial designer, his work is characterized by a clarity of design and precise proportions. Examples are the elegant clocks and watches designed for Junghans, a long-term client. Among Bill's most notable product designs is the "Ulmer Hocker" of 1954, a stool that can also be used as a shelf element or a side table. Although the stool was a creation of Bill and Ulm school designer Hans Gugelot, it is often called "Bill Hocker" because the first sketch on a cocktail napkin was Bill's work.
As a designer and artist, Bill sought to create forms which visually represent the New Physics of the early 20th century. He sought to create objects so that the new science of form could be understood by the senses: that is as a concrete art. Thus Bill is not a rationalist -as is typically thought- but rather a phenomenologist. One who understands embodiment as the ultimate expression of a concrete art. In this way he is not so much extending as re-interpreting Bauhaus theory. Yet curiously Bill's critical interpreters have not really grasped this fundamental issue. He made spare geometric paintings and spherical sculptures, some based on the Möbius strip, in stone, wood, metal and plaster. His architectural work included an office building in Germany, a radio studio in Zurich, and a bridge in eastern Switzerland.
He continued to produce architectural designs, such as those for a museum of contemporary art (1981) in Florence and for the Bauhaus Archive (1987) in Berlin. In 1982 he also entered a competition for an addition to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, built to a design by Mies van der Rohe. Pavillon-Skulptur (1979–83), a large granite sculpture, was installed adjacent to the Bahnhofstrasse, Zürich in 1983. As is often the case with modern art in public places, the installation generated some controversy. Endlose Treppe (1991), a sculpture made of North American granite, was designed for the philosopher Ernst Bloch.
In 1944, Bill became a professor at the school of arts in Zurich. In 1953, alongside Inge Aicher-Scholl and Otl Aicher, he founded the Ulm School of Design (German: Hochschule für Gestaltung - HfG Ulm) in Ulm, Germany, a design school initially created in the tradition of the Bauhaus and which later developed a new design education approach integrating art and science. The school was notable for its inclusion of semiotics as a field of study. The school closed in 1968. Faculty and students included Tomás Maldonado, Otl Aicher, Josef Albers, Johannes Itten, John Lottes, Walter Zeischegg, and Peter Seitz.
Bill was a professor at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste Hamburg and chair of Environmental Design from 1967 to 1974. In 1973 he became an associate member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Science, Literature and Fine Art in Brussels. In 1976 he became a member of the Berlin Academy of Arts. In addition to his teaching, Bill wrote and lectured extensively on art, architecture and design, appearing at symposiums and design conferences around the world. In particular, he wrote books about Le Corbusier, Kandinsky, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and artistic theory.
Bill executed many public sculptures in Europe and exhibited extensively in galleries and museums, including a retrospective at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1968-69. He had his first exhibition in the United States at the Staempfli Gallery in New York City in 1963 and was the subject of retrospectives at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1974, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1988. He participated in documentas I (1955), II (1959), and III (1964). In 1993, he received the Praemium Imperiale for sculpture, awarded by the Emperor of Japan.
Bill is credited with having been "the spark that lighted the fuse of Brazil's artistic revolution" and the country's "movement toward concrete art" with his 1951 retrospective at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art. He strongly influenced Brazilian artists like Franz Weissmann.
After a liaison with Nusch Éluard, in 1931, Bill married the cellist and photographer Binia Spoerri, who died in 1988. From 1974 he was living together with art historian Angela Thomas; they married in 1991.
Bill was also involved in politics. He was elected to the Zurich municipal council in 1961. From 1967 to 1971, he served as a member of the Swiss National Council.
Bill died en route to a hospital after collapsing from a heart attack at Berlin Tegel Airport. He was 85 and lived in Zumikon, a Zürich suburb.
In 1996, Jakob Bill, the son of Max and Binia Bill, founded the Max Bill Foundation and implemented the idea of his father. The purpose of the foundation is to collect and take care of the works in possession of the Bill family, as well as the promotion of scientific research.