Skip main navigation

Systems maps

System maps show the components and boundary of a system in time. A system map is effectively a list of components.
A system map shows the nested subsystems of a system.
A system map shows the components and boundary of a system and the components of the environment at a point in time. A system map is effectively a list of components, but some people find the graphical representation easier to assimilate.
The main use of a system map is to help structure a system and communicate the result to others. It allows you to: clarify thoughts at an early stage of analysis; decide on structural elements for a more detailed diagram of a different type; experiment with boundaries; decide on the level of interest, i.e. ‘focusing’; and communicate to others the basic structure of the system.
The elements of systems maps are blobs and words. Linking lines are not permitted.

The rules are:

  • that the blobs represent boundaries of system components; words are used to name each component;
  • blobs outside the main system boundary represent components of the environment;
  • blobs inside the main system boundary represent components of the system, and components may themselves be grouped into subsystems;
  • blobs may overlap only if one or more components (which need not be depicted) are common to both.

The guidelines for drawing system maps are:

  • the system boundary must be clear;
  • dashed lines can be used when boundaries are not clear;
  • irregular blobs are preferable to regular boxes since the latter suggest precision;
  • overlaps are to be avoided if possible;
  • maps should show components but not try to represent their properties;
  • the size of blobs does not represent importance, but avoid important blobs being smaller than less important blobs;
  • blobs can be anywhere, but it is best to put important components close together;
  • leave space in the map for clarity and later additions;
  • don’t divide blobs except when emphasising a partition.
The systems map above shows the components of a university system, but not the relationships between them.
This article is from the free online

Systems Thinking and Complexity

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education