‘Back To The Drawing Board’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on July 15, 2023

Did someone use the phrase 'back to the drawing board,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

'Back to the drawing board' implies that a plan has failed, and it's time to devise a new one. This idiom originated during WWII and quickly became a part of the common vernacular.

What Does 'Back to the Drawing Board' Mean?

'Back to the drawing board' is an expression that indicates that an idea or plan was unsuccessful and a new one needs to be created. Essentially, an attempt has been made to achieve something and failed, and, therefore, a new design or plan needs to be devised.

The image created by this idiom is that a plan or concept was originally designed on a 'drawing board,' such as a draughtsman's table, an architect's table, a chalkboard, or an easel paper pad.

Once the plan has been implemented and shown to not be effective, the individuals then have to go 'back to the drawing board' to come up with a new solution.

Where Does 'Back to the Drawing Board' Come From?

This idiom has been used since World War II. It quickly became a part of the common vocabulary. It was used as a jocular acceptance that a new design is needed after a failure.

As early as 1947, this phrase appeared in newspapers.

For example, it shows up in a December 1947 article in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin:

"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."

This phrase was well-known enough by the mid-1960s that it appeared in the title of a Get Smart episode, a popular TV show at the time. It can also be found in a number of book titles.

One of the earliest appearances of the expression shows up in a cartoon drawn by Peter Arno. In 1941, a cartoon appeared in the New Yorker magazine that showed ground crew and military men sprinting toward a plane crash. A designer is walking away from the crash carrying a roll of plans, saying:

"Well, back to the old drawing board."

This Idiom in Publications

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that this idiom does seem to have originated during the Second World War.

An early example of the expression in print shows up in a 1964 issue of Boating magazine.

"Ted Hood led the series with his Fantasi into the last race but lost to Wistful. With only one winner the rest of the gang went back to the drawing board."

Another example shows up in a document from the U.S. Senate entitled Missiles, Space, and Other Major Defense Matters from 1960:

Senator Martin: General, what was the period of time for the B-70 between the drawing board and its operational stage?

General White: "If we go back to the drawing boardI will have trouble."

General Bradley: "We started the drawing board on it in 1956."

General White: "The drawing board in 1956. General Bradley, I am sure, knows the facts."

A third example can be found in another U.S. government document from 1975. This one is entitled Mortgage Servicing and HUD Property Management: Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations:

"Mr. Luman, let me explain that. Quite to the contrary, our Chicago office and our Boston office did devise a system. Everybody admits that our present defaulting system is deficient. The Chicago office and the Boston office made very good efforts to put in their own jury-rigged systems. I had already embarked on going back to the drawing board. I then asked that the Chicago people be brought in to assist my people in this system. This was done. The Chicago area and regional people came in and told us what they had."

Examples of This Idiom In Sentences

How would this expression be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "We didn't attain the results we wanted from this quarter's marketing campaign. We'll need to go back to the drawing board in order to devise a new strategy."
  • "My whole life, I dreamed of being a pilot. You can only imagine my shock when I learned I was partially color blind and had to go back to the drawing board."
  • "John, you've been saying this business needs another year to turn a profit for five years now. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think it's time to go back to the drawing board."
  • "I was so certain Sally and I would spend our lives together. When she left, I realized I hadn't once imagined what I'd do without her. It was time to go back to the drawing board."
  • "The highly publicized product launch was, by all accounts, an enormous failure. The CEO seemed unshaken, though, and said they would head back to the drawing board."
  • "We had high hopes for the negotiations with potential investors. However, they fell through. You know what this means-- we're back to the drawing board when it comes to funding."
  • "She didn't want to disappoint him, but it was clear the system he built had so many flaws it was unworkable. Her next task was figuring out how to gently tell him it was time to go back to the drawing board."
  • "After dropping their freshly cooked dinner all over the floor, he didn't skip a beat and simply said, "Well, back to the drawing board!"

Other Ways to Say 'Back to the Drawing Board'

What are some phrases that have a similar meaning to this idiom'? Here are some options:

  • Back to square one
  • Start from scratch
  • Start over
  • Start with a clean slate

Final Thoughts About 'Back to the Drawing Board'

'Back to the drawing board' is an idiom that means to re-design a plan from scratch after the previous iteration failed. Originating during WWII in reference to military designs and plans, it entered the common vocabulary in the mid-20th century.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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