White space is used in two ways in design:
White space at the micro level (leading, kerning, and tracking) can help improve or destroy the legibility of a Web page. If you have a lot of content you need to get across in a small amount of space, you can increase the leading or tracking to make the text easier to read. If you look at the print version of the Wall Street Journal, the paper always has many columns of text with very little margin or padding around it. But the space between the lines and letters makes the columns readable.
White space at the macro level (spacing around the biggest objects on the page) can convey a sense of elegance or down-market quality to a design. The more white space there is the more expensive and high-quality a design may seem. If you look at the advertisements in an expensive women's magazine, you will notice that most ads have very little non-negative space. The text is small, leaving more room for background images, and there are very few elements on the page. Contrast that with a direct mail advertisement and you'll see large blocks of text covering multiple images and very little negative space.
Start Playing with White Space in Your Designs
On the next page you design instead of thinking about where to put that image or how much space you should allocate to the text, ask yourself if there's enough space in the margins and padding to convey the tone and legibility you want. Learn to manage the margins and paddings around your elements. Work with the leading and tracking on your text.
If you're feeling really ambitious, create your design in two ways: once with lots of white space to convey an elegant tone and once with very little to convey a more down-market tone. Use the exact same elements in both designs, just change the spacing between them.
Posted in: Web Design and Applications