SpongeBob is the creation of Stephen Hillenburg (1961-2018), who was an artist and marine biologist. The initial idea for the show came from an unpublished educational comic about sea life for children, The Intertidal Zone. Many of the comic's anthropomorphic characters served as the basis to some of the characters featured on SpongeBob. Hillenburg's college thesis film, Wormholes, was screened at a festival, catching the attention of Joe Murray, creator of the Nickelodeon show Rocko's Modern Life. He offered Hillenburg a job on the show, thus beginning his time working for Nickelodeon.

A writer on Rocko's Modern Life encouraged Hillenburg to create his own show, igniting further developments to his Intertidal Zone characters. This included one Bob the Sponge. Bob became the main character, as Hillenburg wanted to focus on what he thought was the "weirdest" sea creature. First a round, lumpy sponge, Bob's form changed to that of a typical kitchen sponge to better match his "square" and "nerdy" personality. Next came developments for other major characters featuring Patrick, Squidward, and Mr. Krabs.

After forming his initial creative crew and brainstorming ideas with them, Hillenburg officially pitched SpongeBob SquarePants to Nickelodeon. He came in wearing a Hawaiian shirt carrying a fish tank. He played Hawaiian music in the background to finish setting the scene and then placed a drawing of SpongeBob inside. "This is SpongeBob, the star of your new show," he stated. Impressed by Hillenburg's display and unique idea, the executives gave the crew the money to write and produce their pilot episode, "Help Wanted."