2. Visualisation

James Hollway

Why we graph

Network visualisation is important and non-trivial. As Tufte (1983: 9) said:

“At their best, graphics are instruments for reasoning about quantitative information. Often the most effective way to describe, explore, and summarize a set of numbers – even a very large set – is to look at pictures of those numbers”

Brandes et al (1999) argue that visualising networks demands thinking about:

While there may be many dead-ends to exploratory visualisation, it is worth taking the time to make sure that your main points are easy to appreciate.

On her excellent and helpful website, Katya Ognyanova outlines some key dimensions of control that network researchers have to play with:

Approaches to visualising networks in R

There are a host of packages for plotting in R, and for plotting networks in R. Plotting in R is typically based around two main approaches: the ‘base’ approach in R by default, and the ‘grid’ approach made popular by the famous and very flexible {ggplot2} package.1 Approaches to plotting graphs or networks in R can be similarly divided.

The two classic packages are {igraph} and {sna}, both building upon the base R graphics engine. Newer packages {ggnetwork} and {ggraph} build upon a grid approach.2 This vignette introduces some functions in the {migraph} package for plotting and visualising network data. {migraph} builds upon the ggplot2/ggraph engine for plotting.

Using {migraph} to quickly plot network graphs

To get a basic visualisation of the network before adding various specifications, the autographr() function in {migraph} is a quick and easy way to obtain a clear first look of the network for preliminary investigations and understanding of the network.


We can also specify the colours, groups, shapes, and sizes of nodes in the autographr() function using the following parameters:

Appending more

Append ggtitle() to add a title. {migraph} works well with both {ggplot2} and {ggraph} functions that can be appended to create more tailored visualisations of the network.

           labels = TRUE,
           node_size = 1.5) + 

{migraph} also uses the {patchwork} package for arranging graphs together, e.g. side-by-side or above one another. The syntax is quite straight forward and is used throughout these vignettes.

autographr(ison_adolescents) + autographr(ison_algebra)

autographr(ison_adolescents) / autographr(ison_algebra)


A range of graph layouts are available across the {igraph}, {graphlayouts}, and {migraph} packages that can be used together with autographr().

(autographr(ison_southern_women, layout = "bipartite") + ggtitle("bipartite") |
autographr(ison_southern_women, layout = "hierarchy") + ggtitle("hierarchy")) /
(autographr(ison_southern_women, layout = "concentric") + ggtitle("concentric") |
   autographr(ison_southern_women, layout = "railway") + ggtitle("railway"))

Using {ggraph} for more flexibility

For more flexibility with visualizations, {migraph} users are encouraged to use the excellent {ggraph} package. {ggraph} is built upon the venerable {ggplot2} package and works with tbl_graph and igraph objects. As with {ggplot2}, {ggraph} users are expected to build a particular plot from the ground up, adding explicit layers to visualise the nodes and edges.

ggraph(mpn_elite_mex, layout = "fr") + 
  geom_edge_link(edge_colour = "dark grey", 
                  arrow = arrow(angle = 45,
                                length = unit(2, "mm"),
                                type = "closed"),
                  end_cap = circle(3, "mm")) +
  geom_node_point(size = 2.5, shape = 19, colour = "blue") +
  geom_node_text(aes(label=name), family = "serif", size = 2.5) +
  scale_edge_width(range = c(0.3,1.5)) +
  theme_graph() +
  theme(legend.position = "none")

As we can see in the code above, we can specify various aspects of the plot to tailor it to our network. Firstly, we can alter the layout of the network using the layout = argument to create a clearer visualisation of the ties between nodes. This is especially important for larger networks, where nodes and ties are more easily obscured or misrepresented. In {ggraph}, the default layout is the “stress” layout. The “stress” layout is a safe choice because it is deterministic and fits well with almost any graph, but it is also a good idea to explore and try out other layouts on your data. More layouts can be found in the {graphlayouts} and {igraph} R packages. To use a layout from the {igraph} package, enter only the last part of the layout algorithm name (eg. layout = "mds" for “layout_with_mds”).

Secondly, using geom_node_point() which draws the nodes as geometric shapes (circles, squares, or triangles), we can specify the presentation of nodes in the network in terms of their shape (shape=, choose from 1 to 21), size (size=), or colour (colour=). We can also use aes() to match to node attributes. To add labels, use geom_node_text() or geom_node_label() (draws labels within a box). The font (family=), font size (size=), and colour (colour=) of the labels can be specified.

Thirdly, we can also specify the presentation of edges in the network. To draw edges, we use geom_edge_link0() or geom_edge_link(). Using the latter function makes it possible to draw a straight line with a gradient. The following features can be tailored either globally or matched to specific edge attributes using aes():

For directed graphs, arrows can be drawn using the arrow= argument and the arrow() function from {ggplot2}. The angle, length, arrowhead type, and padding between the arrowhead and the node can also be specified.

To change the position of the legend, add the theme() function from {ggplot2}. The legend can be positioned at the top, bottom, left, or right, or removed using “none”.

For more see David Schoch’s excellent resources on this.

Exporting plots to PDF

We can print the plots we have made to PDF by point-and-click by selecting ‘Save as PDF…’ from under the ‘Export’ dropdown menu in the plots panel tab of RStudio.

If you want to do this programmatically, say because you want to record how you have saved it so that you can e.g. make some changes to the parameters at some point, this is also not too difficult.

After running the (gg-based) plot you want to save, use the command ggsave("my_filename.pdf") to save your plot as a PDF to your working directory. If you want to save it somewhere else, you will need to specify the file path (or change the working directory, but that might be more cumbersome). If you want to save it as a different filetype, replace .pdf with e.g. .png or .jpeg. See ?ggsave for more.

  1. ‘gg’ stands for the Grammar of Graphics.↩︎

  2. Others include: ‘Networkly’ for creating 2-D and 3-D interactive networks that can be rendered with plotly and can be easily integrated into shiny apps or markdown documents; ‘visNetwork’ interacts with javascript (vis.js) to make interactive networks (http://datastorm-open.github.io/visNetwork/); and ‘networkD3’ interacts with javascript (D3) to make interactive networks (https://www.r-bloggers.com/2016/10/network-visualization-part-6-d3-and-r-networkd3/).↩︎