Glossary Home Idioms

Back to the drawing board

“Back to the drawing board” is a common English idiom that’s used to refer to someone’s decision to rethink a plan or decision.

It’s possible to use the phrase when talking about their one’s own life or when inquiring about another’s. The phrase likely originated in the 1940s and was first used to refer to failures of mechanical design. 

Go back to the drawing board


Meaning of “Back to the drawing board”

“Back to the drawing board” is used to suggest that someone needs to reassess their ideas and make a new plan. Someone might use this phrase to tell their friend or colleague that whatever idea they’ve come up with is not going to work. This might be in regard to their personal life, relationships, work, travel, or anything else one might think of. The “drawing board” is used as a metaphor for planning and drafting. One draws up on the board what they’re going to do and when they “go back” to it, they’re starting over and trying to come up with a new plan that’s going to be more successful. 


When To Use “Back to the drawing board”

It’s possible to use “back to the drawing board” in a wide variety of situations. What one is planning on the “drawing board” could be anything. The most obvious examples would be plans for a new job, a new relationship, a move, a work project, or an important talk that two people are going to engage in. While these things don’t require someone to physically write down or draw out what they’re going to do, they are important. They require focus and detailed thought and therefore work well with the idea of a “drawing board.” One person might encounter difficulties when trying to mend a relationship and say that they’re going “back to the drawing board” to figure out what to try next. This phrase is also a way of suggesting that just because someone’s first, second, or third attempt at something has failed they aren’t giving up. 


Example Sentences With “Back to the drawing board”

  • I guess we’re just going to have to go back to the drawing board and find another way to fix this. 
  • Are you going back to the drawing board or are you giving up? 
  • She told me she’s taking everything back to the drawing board before presenting her work. 
  • Don’t worry, we’ll just go back to the drawing board and figure out another way to fix your relationship.


Why Do Writers Use “Back to the drawing board?” 

Writers use “back to the drawing board” in the same way and for the same reasons that the phrase is used in everyday conversation. This idiom is quite common, meaning that it is well-known by the majority of the English-speaking world. Most people who read or hear the phrase are going to know exactly what the writer is implying. Therefore, it’s easily used in dialogue or narration. While some idioms might fit perfectly into a situation and make the description of them more interesting, others might come across as overused and flat. This is something that writers are always aware of, especially when dealing with phrases that are as well-known as “back to the drawing board.”  


Origins of “Back to the drawing board”

Scholars believe that the first use of the phrase “back to the drawing board” appeared in a cartoon drawing by Peter Arno. It was published in The New Yorker on March 1st, 1941, and depicts an airplane, nose down in the ground, smoking. A man in a suit and hat is walking into the foreground with the caption “Well, back to the old drawing board.” The man in the image is smiling, suggesting that this is just another day in his life. The pilot is parachuting to the ground. At this time, it was used as a way of accepting, good-naturedly, that a design had failed and needed to be remade. 

There are several more iterations of the phrase in the following months and years. For example, on March 24th, 1942 the phrase appeared in The Chicago Sun. The passage reads:

The American commentator or Congressman is, often, a man standing on his constitutional right to say he doesn’t like it. The whole country, like a bride, serves up its war effort, like a cake, and waits nervously for him to nibble and to make a wry face. Too bad, everybody. Back to the old drawing board. We’d better try again

In another interesting example, the phrase appeared in Walla Walla Union-Bulletin in 1947. The passage reads: 

Grid injuries for the season now closing suggest anew that nature get back to the drawing board, as the human knee is not only nothing to look at but also a piece of bum engineering.


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