System Maps

A systems map is one of the simplest ways to show relationships between parts of a system at different levels. It communicates nesting relationships between systems and subsystems, as well as affinities between closely related components.

When to use it?
Frame: Systems maps are useful when you want a clear map of the whole system. It is particularly good at showing formal, hierarchical structures in a less linear way.

How to do it?

  1. Blob lines represent boundaries. A blob is an oval with a text label inside it.

  2. Every system and subsystem has a name. It often works best to brainstorm a list of components first, then creating a part-whole structure to the list by listing subsystems indented and below the larger systems.

  3. Important influences on the main system are shown outside the main system boundary. Do not forget that all systems have an environment, so list these influences as external blobs.

  4. Blobs within the system are subsystems; they may themselves have subsystems.

  5. Blobs may overlap only if they’re common to both subsystems. The systems map is not a Venn diagram, so only use overlaps to show genuinely shared subsystems.

System maps can be drawn individually or in small groups. Less than five works best, although up to 10 people can participate in this activity. Larger groups should be broken into sub-groups to work in parallel.

30 minutes - 1 hour to draw and cross-brief.

Pros and Cons

  • Systems maps are easy to interpret and provide a comprehensive snapshot of the system’s structure.
  • Good for showing nesting relationships between multiple levels of a system and its environment.


  • Relationships are only implied by proximity, rather than drawn directly.
  • The systems map is static – it does not show how the system behaves over time.


  • Works best when the groups brainstorm and structure the list of components before trying to draw the systems map.
  • The diagram can comfortably represent systems with 10-20 components. If you have more than this, you can create multiple system maps for major subsystems.
  • Write the label first, then draw the oval, to ensure the words fit.
  • If you have magnetic shapes or post-it notes, writing the labels onto these allows you to move the shapes around to build the systems map.



Image Source: Government of Alberta internal systemic design course – May 2014

​Additional Resources

Growing Wings on the Way: Systems Diagrams

Open University Systems Map Presentation