The phrase back to the drawing board is used to indicate that an idea, scheme or proposal has been unsuccessful and that a new one must be devised.
This phrase originated in a cartoon by the U.S. cartoonist Peter Arno (Curtis Arnoux Peters, Jr – 1904-68), published in The New Yorker (New York City, N.Y.) of 1st March 1941. This cartoon shows a smouldering airplane which has just crashed head first into the ground. In the background, the pilot is coming down by parachute. Service personnel are looking on in horror or rushing forward while a civilian designer, a rolled-up engineering plan under his arm, is walking away, saying:
Well, back to the old drawing board.
The earliest uses of the phrase that I have found are from the column I’d Rather Be Right, by Samuel Grafton (1907-97), published in The Chicago Sun (Chicago, Illinois):
1: On 24th March 1942:
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.
2: On 16th April 1942 (with explicit reference to Arno’s cartoon):
U.S. Policy Toward Vichy Blows Up
I wonder whether our State Department will again escape responsibility. It had a policy toward Vichy. That policy has collapsed into profound and utter ruin. It has collapsed as our Japanese policy collapsed, as our Italian policy collapsed, as our Spanish policy collapsed. It is permitted for the State Department, after each of these failures, to rub its hands and say, in the immortal words of the designer whose new airplane crashed: “Well, back to the old drawing board!”
The following cartoons by Peter Arno were also published in The New Yorker during the same period:
Now that’s enough! Run along!
You’re making a grave mistake, Miss Loesch. We Scoutmasters are not entrusted with military secrets.
Maybe after this you’ll realize that when I say I’m going to dive, I mean it. Now go below and dry yourself.
Well, what’s the excuse this time?
Never mind the damned cake! Where are the reporters?
You never can tell what they’re thinking, can you?
Well, if you ever need us again just give us a ring.