What Does The Big Picture Mean?

The Big Picture Meaning

Definition: The complete, overarching story or idea.

This phrase usually implies that one should think of the future, or think of other parallel factors, and not focus on the small details.

The details do not tell the entire story; there are usually other factors to consider when “painting a picture” of the scenario in your mind.

The metaphor is that you may be looking at one cloud in a painting of a landscape and think it’s a cloudy day, when in reality it is a painting of a beautiful field of flowers.

Origin of The Big Picture

what does seeing the big picture meanMerriam-Websters cites the first use of the phrase as 1904 but does not elaborate further on the source. It could be connected with the motion picture industry, which was relatively new at the time.

There are a few earlier references to the idea, including this semi-metaphorical usage in Chambers Journal of Popular Literature in 1862,

  • There was nothing strange in it; it was but a panel from the big picture of life, such a one as you yourself might have traced out during those months spent at the sea-side – a very quiet panel; and I saw it principally through the window.

In 1899, John P. Carroll, writing in the Metropolitan Magazine, uses the phrase in its the modern formation,

  • Other craft figure in the big picture, notably the tugs that bring the big ships up to the city when time is out of joint or tides are adverse.

The phrase probably originated in reference to large paintings—particularly busy ones—and then expanded to include any large-scale view of a situation.

Examples of The Big Picture

the bigger picture meaningIn the modern day, we often remind others to think of the bigger picture, to try and make decisions that help the situation at large, not just a part of it.

Oftentimes, something that is beneficial in the moment is not beneficial in the long run.

It can also be used to remind people not to fret over small problems.

For example,

  • Don’t worry about that test score. In the big picture, it’s not so important.

Here is an example dialogue between a CEO and a manager,

CEO: We need to increase our market share and move in on new technologies.

Manager: How do you propose we do that? Developing software or manufacturing products requires a lot of resources and capital.

CEO: I don’t know. I’m just looking at the big picture, and this is the wave of the future. We need to be here, or we’ll be extinct.

Manager: I’ll look into it.

More Examples

  • December marks the 75th straight month of job growth… economics writer Ben White sums up the big picture: Unemployment rate peaked at 10% at depth recession early in Obama’s first term. He will leave office with UE at just 4.7%. –The Washington Post
  • With the opportunity of a lifetime after a disappointing introduction to the NFL, Bears quarterback Matt Barkley is too wired to stay in-the-moment to consider the big picture. –Chicago Sun-Times


The big picture is the complete perspective of an issue or a situation.