Back to the Drawing Board – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Did your idea just go up in smoke? Maybe it's time to take a fresh look at the project? It's time to go "back to the drawing board" with your ideas. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.


Going "back to the drawing board" means realizing that your idea doesn't work and needs redevelopment. The project doesn't always have to end in disaster, but it's not the result you're looking for with the outcome.

It's a way of saying that someone rejected your proposal, and you need to think about a new strategy. It can also refer to a physical task or project that didn't go as planned and requires a new approach.

The saying has versatile use, and it can apply to any situation when you don't achieve the result you expect, and you need to rework the idea.

You can use it to describe your ideas or other people's. If someone's idea didn't work out, you could tell them to go back to the drawing board., If your idea doesn't work, you could tell everyone that you're going back to the drawing board.

Example Usage

"That idea didn't work. Oh well, back to the drawing board I go."

"Listen, Tom, I know you want it to work, but it's just not going to happen. Perhaps it's time to go back to the drawing board with this one?"

"I guess I'll have to go back to the drawing board. There is no way the client is going to approve this."

"It's time to go back to the drawing board, that idea was totally off the mark, and we have to start from scratch with everything."

"I was totally off the mark with that. I guess it's time to go back to the drawing board and come up with something else."


The origin of the expression "back to the drawing board" comes from American cartoonist "Peter Arno" (born Curtis Arnoux Peters, Jr – 1904-68). Arno published his work in The New Yorker, with his debut strip appearing on 1st March 1941.

The cartoon shows an airplane crashing into the ground, with the pilot descending by parachute in the panel's background. The service personnel stares in horror at the sight. At the same time, a civilian with a rolled-up engineering plan underarm walks away, with the following caption in the panel reading the following.

"Well, back to the old drawing board."

The earliest use of" back to the drawing board in text print comes from The Chicago Sun column, "I'd Rather Be Right," authored by Samuel Grafton (1907-97), published on 24th March 1942, where it appears as follows.

"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.

Phrases Similar to Back to the Drawing Board

  • That was a bust.
  • Start from scratch.
  • Wipe the slate.

Phrases Opposite to Back to the Drawing Board

  • That works.
  • Great idea.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Back to the drawing board.

Ways People May Say Back to the Drawing Board Incorrectly

The phrase doesn’t refer to the physical act of going to a drawing board and drawing an image or picture. In this case, the “drawing board” would be your mind, and you’re telling someone to come up with a new idea. Using it to describe the action of drawing is incorrect.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Back to the Drawing Board

You can use the expression “back to the drawing board” when you experience unexpected or negative results that were not the expected outcome of the event or task. The phrase suits social and professional use.

You could use it at work when you’re telling someone that their product idea failed and they need to do more product research. You could use it at home when you fail at cooking a dish correctly.

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