Depicting networks (also known as graphs, and covered in chapters 7 and 8 of Visualizing Data) is a tricky subject, and too often leads to representations that are a tangled and complicated mess. Such diagrams are often referred to with terms like ball of yarn or string, a birds nest, cat hair or simply hairball.
It’s also common for a network diagram to be engaging and attractive for its complexity (usually aided and abetted by color), which tends to hide how poorly it conveys the meaning of the data it represents.
On the other hand, Tamara Munzner is someone in visualization who really “gets” graphs in greater depth. A couple years ago she gave an excellent Google Tech Talk (looks like it was originally from another conference in ’05), titled “15 Views of a Node Link Graph” (video, links, slides) where she discussed a range of methods for working viewing graph data, along with their pros and cons:
A cheat sheet of the 15 methods:
- Edge List
- Force-Directed Placement
- Animated Radial Layouts
- Cushion Treemaps
- Multilevel Call Matrices
- 2D Hyperbolic Trees
The presentation is an excellent survey of methods, and highly recommended for anyone getting started with graph and network data. It’s useful food for thought for the “how should I represent this data?” question.