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Back to the Drawing Board: English Phrase – Meaning & Usage

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Yet another phrase discussion and here we are back to the drawing board! The expression ‘Back to the Drawing Board’ is an idiom, that implies an emotion of reworking something, as the first attempt was unsuccessful. If you were to go by its literal meaning, it would be talking about drawing boards. 

So, what does the phrase ‘Back to the Drawing Board’ mean?

Back to the Drawing Board is a phrase in English that is used when we have to start something all over again because the previous way didn’t work well. ‘Back to square one’ is the synonymous phrase to ‘Back to the Drawing Board’. In simple words, when an architect designs a plan but it doesn’t work in reality, he goes back to the Drawing Board to design a new plan.

Let’s see after learning in-depth about this idiom, where your understanding of the topic will be, back to the drawing board or comprehensive? 

Meaning of the Back to the Drawing Board Meaning

If you go by the definition of this idiom, it defines it as an expression to describe an idea that failed and needs to be revised. The phrase is mostly used by architects and engineers, as the drawing table is where they draw the blueprints.  It can be used to illustrate any kind of failure, though. 


“The experiment readings came out wrong, so I am back to the drawing board.”

“The editor rejected the piece of an editorial I had submitted now I am back to the drawing board.”

“With the lack of confidence, I am back on the drawing table in the driving class.”

All the above-mentioned examples indicate back to the beginning of the process, as it didn’t work out earlier.

But, you must have heard of phrases such as back to square one, back to where we started, begin again, make a fresh start, make a new beginning, start from scratch, and wipe the slate clean. All these phrases are the synonyms of back to the drawing table, and when you go by their literal meaning, it points toward redoing something. 

Origin of the Phrase ‘Back to the Drawing Board’

Peter Arno, an American artist used this figurative speech in his comic strip in the New Yorker. The cartoon comic was published in 1941, the scenario where Peter Arno used this idiom was:

The comic featured a man who was holding a set of blueprints while watching an airplane explode.

So, in the comic strip, we see a man in a fancy suit, carrying a bunch of rolled-up papers walking away from a crashed plane. In the cartoon, the papers were assumed to be mechanical drawings of an aircraft.

In the bubble above his head, we read “Well, back to the drawing board.”

Here, it clearly indicates that the crashed plane was a failure, and the mechanical drawing needs to be redone for a successful aircraft flight.

Later on, the phrase came into the picture quite commonly in 1947 US newspapers, and then in 1966, it crowned the title of an episode from the “Get Smart” TV series. Afterward, the phrase appeared as the title of several books illustrating the same meaning as we know it today.

So, why a drawing board?

The reason is, that a drawing table is used by an architect or engineer to draw their plans. If the proposed plan fails, they will go back to the drawing table to draw another. Hence, when something has to be repeated due to failure, this phrase expresses the required emotion.

Correct Usage of ‘Back to the Drawing Board’

The figure of speech of ‘back to the drawing table’ is a metaphorical idiom that illustrates going back to where you started from, and coming up with an entirely new plan or idea, after the failure of the previous one.

The phrase is well-known among architects and engineers but can be used commonly in sentences when a speaker wants to describe the crash of a primary method.

The idea behind using a ‘drawing table’ comes from the table of an architect or an engineer. Call it a drawing table or an architect’s table, it’s a tool used by them to draw their designs. So, when a design of an architect collapses, he is required to come back to his table and redraw the design. 

Hence, back to the drawing board can be ordinarily practiced in something related to art.

Examples of ‘Back to the Drawing Board’

  • After receiving the new requirements from the client, the employees were back on the drawing board.
  • Bob decided to be back to the drawing board as his project needed some new illustrations.

The following example will clarify your doubts on how and when to use this idiom.

Alice: Finally, I am about to complete my jewelry designs.

Bob: That’s great, but I have awful news for you.

Alice: What’s the matter?

Bob: I have got a mail from the boss. He said that the client just changed the assignment details. We have to work on bag designs in accessory designing. He won’t be accepting jewelry designs. 

Alice: What? After finishing the entire set of designs, we can’t submit them.

Bob: Yes, we are back to the drawing board! Good luck!

Some more examples of ‘Back to the Drawing Board’ from Media & Literature

“In my mind, the men and women of NASA are history’s modern pioneers. They attempt the impossible, accept failure, and then back to the drawing board while the rest of us stand back and criticize.”

— Dan Brown (Deception Point)

“So with every dance, we had to completely go back to the drawing board and cross our fingers that we would figure it out. We always did. That’s a lesson I’ve carried away from my experience on the show: There’s always a way if we’re willing to try hard enough to find it.”

— Amy Purdy (On My Own Two Feet: The Journey from Losing My Legs to Learning the Dance of Life)

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