Are there actually any new colours?
No. Colours, strictly speaking, are places on the unbroken continuum of light that we see in a rainbow. There aren't any new ones. Scientists have found that people can distinguish at least a million different colours, though we can name only the ones we have names for.
That is, we could have identified Tangerine Tango as "orange" or maybe "red orange," but until Pantone named it their Colour of the Year for 2012, most of us couldn't have distinguished this particular shade of orange as Tangerine Tango.
Pantone has more than 1,100 different names for colours -- many more than most of us would ever use, but still many fewer than our eyes are able to distinguish.
So what does it mean when we have "new" colours each season?
The last time Pantone chose orange for the colour of the year was in 2004, when Tigerlily was the queen of colours.
Chances are good that most of us, asked to pick between Tangerine Tango and Tiger Lily, would have a hard time. Even if we had a clear preference for one over the other, if we then went out looking for a lamp to match one shade or the other, we'd have a hard time picking the "right" shade with confidence.
So why do we even have new colours each season? It's actually something about the human brain. We get used to seeing one set of colours -- say, the warm pinks and greens of 2011 -- and when we see the deep blues and red-oranges of 2012 we find them much more exciting.
This is because our brains naturally quit responding to information we've seen before.They have to. We can't go around getting excited about the colour of the sky every moment that we see it, and equally excited about all the other sensations in the world. We wouldn't be able to concentrate at all if we did that. Our brains protect us by responding differently to new information than to old information.
New colours have been out of style for a while, or they're a bit different from the almost-identical version of the colour that was popular last year, so they look new to us. We may not like them at first, or we may be excited to see a colour we love but which hasn't been around recently. Either way, they get our full attention.